Teach, Witness and Advocate: Catholic Education’s Response to Secularism

This report was adapted from a lecture delivered as part of the Distinguished Speakers Series at Franciscan University of Steubenville on October 15, 2015


The Catholic Church in the United States today faces serious challenges arising from secularism and an increasingly secular society, including growing threats to religious freedom.  But while Catholic education is a victim of these threats and can even—when done poorly—make matters worse, faithful Catholic education must be embraced as a key solution to the challenges that secularism poses to Christianity and as a primary means of the New Evangelization.

While the entire Church should renew its appreciation for the essential role of faithful Catholic education, it is most urgently the Catholic educator’s role to proclaim, defend, and witness to the value of Catholic education.  The Catholic educator’s response to secularism should be characterized by resistance to violations of religious freedom and public witness to the Faith and to the integrity of Catholic education—and not by compliance and silence.

Catholic educators cannot rely simply on legal and public policy efforts to preserve their institutions.  Even if the Church and her allies successfully fend off current threats to religious organizations in the courts or legislatures, the underlying crises of truth and faith are likely to persist, laying the groundwork for new violations of natural and constitutional freedoms.

Moreover, Catholic educators must not be tempted into silent compliance, even if they are able to identify moral and legal options for operating under government coercion.  Any action or commitment of the Catholic educator must avoid the risk of scandal and—even more—should have the intention and effect of teaching truth by explanation and example.  Catholic educators should vigorously assert their rights in a free society and use every available means within their competency and mission to defend the integrity of Catholic education.

Above all, Catholic educators can most effectively respond to secularism by better fulfilling their authentic, divinely inspired mission to evangelize by forming the human person.  They do so in their teaching to students and others, research and writing about key moral and social concerns, public witness to the Faith, advocacy for Catholic education, defense of the rightful autonomy of Catholic education from the state, and solidarity with others in each of these tasks.

It may seem an odd position that Catholic education is proposed as a solution to actual and threatened violations of religious freedom, when it is most certainly a victim of those same violations.  In an increasingly secular society, actors in all levels of government are attempting or threatening to abuse their powers and violate religious freedom in a manner that could damage, cripple, and ultimately bar Catholic education—including Catholic homeschools, schools, colleges, and universities.  Especially with regard to sexuality and gender, marriage, the sacredness of human life, and human dignity, a growing divide between Catholic teaching and social mores has motivated public policymakers and courts to show increasing insensitivity and even hostility to the demands of the Catholic faith upon believers and the fidelity that is necessary to Catholic apostolates and ministries.

Not only do these violations conflict with a school or college’s institutional commitment to a Catholic identity, but they also interfere with the ability of Catholic educators to teach and witness to the Faith.  In this sense, the impact of religious freedom violations is especially damaging to Catholic education.

Moreover, not only is Catholic education a victim of the growing threats to religious freedom, but where our Catholic institutions are marked by infidelity and indifference to their mission, Catholic education is also a contributing cause of this crisis.  The abuses of religious freedom—and secularism generally—are rooted in ignorance, misunderstanding, and often hostility to the truth about man and God.  This secular confusion both feeds and is fed by the scandal of Christian infidelity and poor catechesis and theology; many Catholics, together with many other Americans, are experiencing what Pope Benedict described as a “contemporary ‘crisis of truth’ [that] is rooted in a ‘crisis of faith’”.1

Weakened Catholic identity and dissent within our very own Catholic institutions—particularly many colleges and universities—sow greater confusion within the Church and society.  They also invite further encroachment upon the freedoms of religious institutions, because non-Catholics are understandably suspicious of the Church’s sincerity when she seeks legal exemption from government policies and regulations in order to uphold certain Catholic teachings and practices, but Catholic institutions and educators openly dissent from those same teachings and practices.

Nevertheless—or perhaps precisely because of the confusion that has crept into many Catholic educational institutions—faithful Catholic education is a necessary and primary solution for the Church in facing the challenges of secularism.  Catholic education, when done rightly, is that apostolate of the Church that seeks and communicates truth in the light of faith, forming the human person to know, love, and serve God.  That mission is urgently needed today.

According to Ex corde Ecclesiae, the 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic universities, Catholic educators serve both the Church and society and fulfill their mission to teach “the whole truth about nature, man and God”.2  Especially in higher education, they engage in writing and research “so that the united endeavor of intelligence and faith will enable people to come to the full measure of their humanity, created in the image and likeness of God, renewed even more marvelously, after sin, in Christ, and called to shine forth in the light of the Spirit.”3

The Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education has taught that Catholic education is “a privileged means of promoting the formation of the whole man” and an instrument of evangelization, which is the Church’s mission in this world.4  Pope Francis has said that education is “key, key, key” to evangelization.5  Pope Benedict XVI said that Catholic education is “an essential resource for the new evangelization,” while cautioning that Catholic colleges especially “need to reaffirm their distinctive identity in fidelity to their founding ideals and the Church’s mission in service of the Gospel.”  He added, “It is no exaggeration to say that providing young people with a sound education in the faith represents the most urgent internal challenge facing the Catholic community in your country.”6  Saint Pope John Paul II said, “In the overall work of the new evangelization, the educational sector occupies a place of honor.”7

At a time when the New Evangelization has a limited focus on casting its nets wide but shallow, the Church should place increased priority on the deep, integral formation that Catholic education provides.  Catholic education, more than any other means of evangelization, helps ensure a lifelong commitment to the Faith and preparation of our young people for sainthood in an increasingly difficult and often hostile culture.

Catholic education, then, is itself an appropriate and necessary response to the contemporary crises of truth and faith that are the bases for a secularized culture and violations of religious freedom.  Nothing short of a substantially increased effort to educate Catholics in the Faith may be sufficient to protect against the dangers of a culture that is rapidly becoming what Blessed John Henry Newman called “simply irreligious.”8

First Response: Teach

The principal duty of the Catholic educator is to teach, and the Church in American society is in great need of this service.  Too much of education is no longer grounded in truth and “the fount of truth”,9 and young people are lacking in the most human faculties of reasoning and communication.

Catholic education forms students intellectually and in the Faith, and prepares them for service to society and for lifelong witness to the Faith.  In each respect, Catholic educators can fulfill their mission in ways that respond to secularism and its root causes.

A Catholic educator’s objective is to educate the student—to form the student intellectually and in relationship to God.  According to the 1977 Vatican document, The Catholic School, Catholic education’s “task is fundamentally a synthesis of culture and faith, and also of faith and life: the first is reached by integrating all the different aspects of human knowledge through the subjects taught, in the light of the Gospel; the second in the growth of the virtues characteristic of the Christian.”10

Saint Pope John Paul II said the vision of Catholic education has “its origin in the person of Christ and its roots in the teachings of the Gospel.  Catholic schools must seek not only to impart a quality education from the technical and professional standpoint, but also and above all provide for the integral formation of the human person.”11

The endeavor to interweave reason and faith, which has become the heart of individual subjects, makes for unity, articulation, and coordination, bringing forth within what is learnt in school a Christian vision of the world, of life, of culture, and of history.  In the Catholic school’s educational project there is no separation between time for learning and time for formation, between acquiring notions and growing in wisdom.  The various school subjects do not present only knowledge to be attained, but also values to be acquired and truths to be discovered.12

The Catholic college or university continues this formation.  Ex corde Ecclesiae says that students participate in “a continuing reflection in the light of the Catholic faith upon the growing treasury of human knowledge”.13  Their education combines “academic and professional development with formation in moral and religious principles and the social teachings of the Church”.14

Catholic education has not only an inward concern for the student’s own development, but also an outward concern for society and its evangelization.  According to the Vatican II declaration Gravissimum Educationis, Catholic education aspires that students “learn not only how to bear witness to the hope that is in them (cf. Peter 3:15) but also how to help in the Christian formation of the world that takes place when natural powers viewed in the full consideration of man redeemed by Christ contribute to the good of the whole society”.15 And Ex corde Ecclesiae demands that graduates should be prepared to “devote themselves to the service of society and of the Church, but at the same time prepared to give the witness of their faith to the world.”16

Catholic education responds to secularism by better ensuring that future generations of Americans know God, know the Catholic faith, and are capable of defending the Faith and religious freedom.  This simply fulfills the teaching mission of Catholic education, already embraced by faithfully Catholic schools, colleges, and universities.

But where is the evidence that students in Catholic schools, colleges, and universities today are graduating with adequate knowledge of the Faith and are living in fidelity to the Church’s moral and social teachings?  If Christian formation is the heart of Catholic education, it should also be the central focus of student outcomes measurements and periodic assessments to better ensure the results that we promise, followed by intensified efforts to improve those results.  This is a challenge even to the most faithful Catholic institutions, which need better instruments to document their degree of success in the formation to which they are publicly committed.

Do all of our Catholic schools, colleges, and universities put at least as much emphasis on Christian formation as on academic achievement and career preparation?  Is this reflected in our standards, curricula, course plans, choice of textbooks, extracurricular programs, and policies?  In our teachers and our hiring priorities?  In our celebration of the Sacraments, prayer, sacramental preparation, and other activities?  Are opportunities for formation simply made available to students, or are they integral to the student experience, with due respect for freedom of conscience?  Especially on college campuses, is there an implicit relativism that suggests a false equality between Christian formation and the practice of other religions?

With particular relevance to contemporary culture, a Catholic education—in partnership with parents—forms young people in sexual purity and provides understanding of the Church’s teaching with regard to sexuality, marriage, human dignity, and the sanctity of human life.  Today these truths are distorted and often attacked in American society, encouraging sympathy for laws that offend morality and violate the rights of Catholic institutions to uphold Catholic teachings.  Do the graduates of Catholic education embrace sexual morality and the true nature of marriage, counter to contemporary American culture?  Do they embrace the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of human life and the dignity of the human person?  Note that these are more than questions of institutional commitment to the faith; they require commitment to achieving outcomes and the promise of a sure formation of students.

How, then, does Catholic education make the further claim to prepare students for evangelization, to “give witness of their faith to the world”?  This objective requires inspiration and skills preparation that are largely absent from most Catholic school, college, and university programs of study.  This requires our attention, especially at a time when the Church is calling the laity to a New Evangelization.

Beyond teaching students, the extraordinary challenges facing Catholic education today should inspire educators to teach others in the Church and community, thereby confronting the ignorance that feeds violations of religious freedom.  The Church proclaims the benefits of Catholic education for both the student’s formation and “the common good of societies.”  According to Ex corde Ecclesiae, the Catholic college or university is committed to dialogue with culture and to be an “effective instrument of cultural progress for individuals as well as for society.”17  Catholic educators should consider ways of making their teaching available to ever-widening audiences, including non-Catholics, in ways that simultaneously benefit their institutions.

The Church’s efforts to make use of new technologies and methods of communication suggest ways that Catholic educators can share their teaching with society without significant distraction from the priority of teaching students.  Professors and teachers can be held out to news media as experts, providing a Catholic perspective when possible.  They can be publicly visible as bloggers and columnists, television and radio guests, and speakers at public events.  They can share classroom materials and even videos in all subjects to help adult Catholics and others learn what is presented to students, especially with regard to the integration of the Faith.  All of this enhances the reputation of Catholic institutions while increasing appreciation for the formation provided in Catholic education.

The secularization of American society invites Catholic educators to more vigorously seek ways of using their expertise for catechesis and evangelization in the community.  New apostolates or associations of educators joined together for this purpose would be an effective and valuable service to the Church and society.

Second Response: Research and Writing on Key Moral and Social Concerns?

In addition to teaching, Catholic college educators often make important contributions by their research and writing.  Focusing this work on the falsehoods that lie at the root of secularism and on the tragic consequences of secularism is a much-needed service of Catholic education today.

In elementary and secondary education, this begins with the “critical, systematic transmission of culture in the light of faith” in Catholic schools.18  Educators and students are called to examine culture and to consider how it should be transformed in the light of the Gospels.  This can be carried outside the classroom through social activities, events, lectures, debates, the arts, and other means of interacting with the surrounding culture.

But it is especially in Catholic higher education that educators are called to writing and research that serves the needs of the Church.  Despite observations that the West has already entered a “post-Christian” age, we are reminded of the hope expressed by Saint John Paul II in Ex corde Ecclesiae, that Catholic universities around the world:

…are for me a lively and promising sign of the fecundity of the Christian mind in the heart of every culture.  They give me a well-founded hope for a new flowering of Christian culture in the rich and varied context of our changing times, which certainly face serious challenges but which also bear so much promise under the action of the Spirit of truth and love.19

Ex corde Ecclesiae places special emphasis on the role of research in the Catholic university to help “discern and evaluate both the aspirations and the contradictions of modern culture, in order to make it more suited to the total development of individuals and peoples.”20

University research will seek to discover the roots and causes of the serious problems of our time, paying special attention to their ethical and religious dimensions.  If need be, a Catholic University must have the courage to speak uncomfortable truths which do not please public opinion, but which are necessary to safeguard the authentic good of society.

A specific priority is the need to examine the predominant values and norms of modern society and culture in a Christian perspective, and the responsibility to try to communicate to society those ethical and religious principles which give full meaning to human life.21

Catholic educators, especially in higher education, could support the Church’s response to secularism and its root causes by engaging in a variety of research and writing projects.  Already some of the best arguments for religious freedom and its legal defense have come out of universities, including some Catholic institutions.  Much more can be done to marshal college and university resources—the most precious of which is the expertise of faculty members—to provide intellectual support, gather valuable information, and analyze the strategies and activities of the Church’s many apostolates.

In particular, the violations of religious freedom impel Catholic educators to place priority on research that directly supports efforts to defend the Church’s institutions or addresses the needs of apostolates and ministries that are focused on the issues central to most violations: sexuality and gender, marriage, the sacredness of human life, and human dignity.  While much valuable research has already been provided by professors in Catholic colleges and universities, it cannot be said that their faculties are, as a whole, as committed to this work as the times require.

In his First Things article a few months ago, proposing various preparations for the 2015 Synod on the Family, George Weigel provided an example of the myriad ways scholars could provide valuable support for the Church’s mission.  He wrote:

More data should be brought forward—and [it is] abundantly available—to demonstrate that the Church’s idea of permanent and fruitful marriage, like the Church’s teaching on the appropriate means of regulating fertility, makes for happier marriages, happier families, happier children, and more-benevolent societies than does the deconstruction of marriage and the family that is inundating the West like a tsunami.  In teaching the truth about marriage, about love, and about the complementarity of the sexes, the Catholic Church is proposing the path to happiness and human flourishing, not the road to repression and misery.  It should make a bold, data-driven case in defense of that teaching, which is a defense of the dignity of the human person.22

It is this sort of “bold, data-driven” research and argument that is needed from Catholic scholars to address not only issues concerning marriage, but all the issues that feed a cultural disdain for the Catholic Church and are consequences of secularism.

Third Response: Public Witness to the Faith

Catholic educators are called to be witnesses to the Faith.  That witness is greatly needed today, both inside and outside the classroom.

Catholic education, by definition, assumes fidelity to the magisterium of the Church.  According to Canon Law, “The instruction and education in a Catholic school must be grounded in the principles of Catholic doctrine. …”23  Ex corde Ecclesiae requires that a Catholic college or university “informs and carries out its research, teaching, and all other activities with Catholic ideals, principles, and attitudes. …Catholic teaching and discipline are to influence all university activities, while the freedom of conscience of each person is to be fully respected.  Any official action of commitment of the university is to be in accord with its Catholic identity.”24

Such fidelity depends most heavily on the witness of the educators themselves.  In schools, says Canon Law, “teachers are to be outstanding in correct doctrine and integrity of life”.25  In colleges and universities, requires Ex corde Ecclesiae, “all Catholic teachers are to be faithful to, and all other teachers are to respect, Catholic doctrine and morals in their research and teaching”.26

There is great value to the Church and society in the very example of Catholic educators who remain steadfastly committed to Christian formation in complete fidelity to the magisterium of the Church—especially when such formation is contrary to the norms of secular culture and defies government threats and laws violating religious freedom.  Such educators provide an important public witness to the authentic purpose and value of Catholic schools, colleges, and universities.  Such witness creates opportunities to explain and demonstrate to policymakers and the American public why many Catholic institutions are unwilling to compromise their fidelity to Catholic teaching when faced with government coercion.

This witness is all the more important amid the current crisis of Catholic identity within Catholic education.  Many institutions today fail in significant and public ways to uphold their mission, thereby promoting confusion and doubt regarding the necessity of freedoms that protect religious education.  By contrast, faithfully Catholic schools, colleges, and universities can be effective and much-needed models of Catholic education within the Church and society, demonstrating why religious freedom remains valuable and necessary to preserving their integrity.

There have been substantial efforts in recent decades to strengthen the Catholic identity of schools, colleges, and universities—and also to establish new, lay-directed schools and colleges that are often extraordinary in the formation provided to students—but the present threats increase the urgency for such efforts.  The Church is in great need of their witness and their courage to stand against violations of religious freedom and protect the integrity of Catholic education.  Those institutions that do so may be weakened financially and in their ability to compete for students and employees; the Church should not abandon them to that fate, but should substantially increase support for such institutions in recognition of their great importance and with gratitude for their example.

Fourth Response: Defense of the Rightful Autonomy of Catholic Education from the State

Inherently connected to the mission of the Catholic educator is the obligation to explain and, when necessary, to defend that mission.  This is greatly needed today, amid increasing government threats to religious freedom.

Catholic educators provide a vital service not only to the Church, but as Pope Benedict said to American educators in 2008, they “truly serve society”.27  The benefits to both Church and society need to be proclaimed loudly in defense against the threats to educators’ ability to provide authentic Catholic teaching and formation.  Catholic educators should appeal to the Church for her public witness to the value of Catholic education, but primary responsibility rests upon Catholic educators themselves to more convincingly argue their place in the Church and society and to celebrate their contributions.

Within the Church, not only does Catholic education suffer from declining enrollment and financial hardship in elementary and secondary schools, but there appears to be declining appreciation for the unique benefits of Catholic education at all levels.  This is greatly exacerbated by the crisis of Catholic identity in Catholic education, with many Catholics no longer aware of the significant impact that an authentic Catholic education can have for a young person.  A vigorous defense of traditional Catholic education and proposals for its renewal are urgently needed.  Catholic educators can also do much to help Catholics better understand and appreciate what they do and why it has such great importance for the Christian formation of young Catholics.

In addition, the case must be made more convincingly for the rights of Catholic educators amid the pluralism of American society.  Again citing the Vatican document, The Catholic School:

The Church upholds the principle of a plurality of school systems in order to safeguard her objectives in the face of cultural pluralism.  In other words, she encourages the co-existence and, if possible, the cooperation of diverse educational institutions which will allow young people to be formed by value judgments based on a specific view of the world and to be trained to take an active part in the construction of a community through which the building of society itself is promoted.

Thus, while policies and opportunities differ from place to place, the Catholic school has its place in any national school system.  By offering such an alternative, the Church wishes to respond to the obvious need for cooperation in a society characterized by cultural pluralism.  Moreover, in this way she helps to promote that freedom of teaching which champions and guarantees freedom of conscience and the parental right to choose the school best suited to parents’ educational purpose.

…In fact, as the State increasingly takes control of education and establishes its own so-called neutral and monolithic system, the survival of those natural communities, based on a shared concept of life, is threatened.  Faced with this situation, the Catholic school offers an alternative which is in conformity with the wishes of the members of the community of the Church.28

Included in this is a defense of the rights of parents in a free society to direct the education of their children and to choose authentic Catholic education that is not compromised by government mandate.  Saint Pope John Paul II wrote in Ecclesia in America:

To carry out [her] tasks, the Church in America requires a degree of freedom in the field of education; this is not to be seen as a privilege but as a right, in virtue of the evangelizing mission entrusted to the Church by the Lord.  Furthermore, parents have a fundamental and primary right to make decisions about the education of their children; consequently, Catholic parents must be able to choose an education in harmony with their religious convictions.  The function of the State in this area is subsidiarity; the State has the duty “to ensure that education is available to all and to respect and defend freedom of instruction.  A State monopoly in this area must be condemned as a form of totalitarianism which violates the fundamental rights which it ought to defend, especially the right of parents to provide religious education for their children.  The family is the place where the education of the person primarily takes place.29

The place of Catholic colleges and universities in American society must also be vigorously promoted and defended.  According to Ex corde Ecclesiae:

Catholic Universities join other private and public Institutions in serving the public interest through higher education and research; they are one among the variety of different types of institution that are necessary for the free expression of cultural diversity, and they are committed to the promotion of solidarity and its meaning in society and in the world.  Therefore they have the full right to expect that civil society and public authorities will recognize and defend their institutional autonomy and academic freedom…30

Fifth Response: Solidarity with Others in Responding to Secularism

My final suggestion is for increased collaboration both within and without the Catholic Church in pursuing these tasks.  In all of this, the Catholic educator is united with the Church and others who seek the common good.  Collaboration should be desired and invited to increase the effect of the educator’s efforts and to promote Christian unity and charity.

The Code of Canon Law states that the Church’s bishops have “the duty of arranging everything so that all the faithful have a Catholic education,”31 “to establish and direct schools,”32 to consent to use of the label Catholic,33 and to “watch over” and regulate Catholic education.34  In higher education, according to Ex corde Ecclesiae:

Bishops have a particular responsibility to promote Catholic Universities, and especially to promote and assist in the preservation and strengthening of their Catholic identity, including the protection of their Catholic identity in relation to civil authorities.  This will be achieved more effectively if close personal and pastoral relationships exist between University and Church authorities, characterized by mutual trust, close and consistent cooperation, and continuing dialogue.35

Collaboration to promote and defend Catholic education is an important expression of the close relationship between Catholic educators and their bishops.  Catholic educators should communicate frequently with their bishops to ensure the Church’s guidance and to encourage support for their protection and mission.  The Church should expect educators’ vigorous defense of that mission, and educators who courageously engage in self-defense should expect the full support and assistance of their bishops.

Canon law also calls on “the Christian faithful” to “foster Catholic schools, assisting in their establishment and maintenance according to their means,”36 and to “strive so that in civil society the laws which regulate the formation of youth also provide for their religious and moral education in the schools themselves, according to the conscience of the parents.”37  Also, “the entire ecclesial Community is invited to give its support to Catholic Institutions of higher education and… in a special way to guard the rights and freedoms of these Institutions in civil society.”38

Partnerships with Catholic laity and Catholic apostolates, then, are to be encouraged when confronting violations of religious freedom.  Those apostolates that are independently engaged in such efforts should be encouraged to recognize the high priority of preserving faithful Catholic education and supporting its mission as itself necessary to the protection of the rights of the Church.

In fulfilling their mission, Catholic educators should look especially to other Catholic educators and schools, colleges, and universities for mutual support.  There is a great need for unity and a shared response to government aggression.  Ex corde Ecclesiae prescribes collaboration among Catholic scholars as “imperative” in university research, emphasizing “various national and international associations.”39  If existing structures for scholars and institutions do not sufficiently provide the mission-centered support and assistance that is needed for research and communication with the government, American bishops, and Vatican, then the times may call for new associations to meet urgent needs.

Finally, Catholic educators should look to the shared experience and collaboration of scholars and leaders from other religions.  In particular, Catholic and other Christian educators share many common concerns, and the latter’s commitment to Christian formation is often very similar to that of the most faithful Catholic schools, colleges, and universities.  The Cardinal Newman Society has had much fruitful collaboration especially with Evangelical Christian educators who share most of our concerns about threats to religious freedom.  Cooperation with associations of Christian scholars, schools, colleges, and universities would prove valuable, I am certain.

Conclusion: Resistance and Witness

The value of Catholic education is reason enough for a vigorous defense and efforts to preserve it, when confronted by secularism and government violations of religious freedom.  But to return to an earlier point, survival alone—if it means silent acquiescence to the law—is insufficient and even dangerous, for it would so compromise the mission of Catholic education that it surely would not survive in any authentic form.

That is because the very mission of Catholic education requires assent to the truth and to God, the fount of truth, in all its activities.  That calls for so much more than quiet compliance with laws that conflict with Catholic morality.  Any government coercion that would compromise Catholic education must be resisted according to the methods and competencies of Catholic educators, in collaboration with each other and with the Church and her allies.

Resistance, however, cannot depend solely or even primarily on legal and public policy responses.  Catholic educators must confront secularism by the most effective means possible—that is, by better fulfilling their authentic, divinely inspired mission to evangelize by forming the human person.  In the ways suggested above and more, Catholic educators should be committed to authentic teaching, research and writing about key moral and social concerns, public witness to the Faith, advocacy for Catholic education, defense of the rightful autonomy of Catholic education from the state, and solidarity with others in each of these tasks.

More than ever, the urgency of the times invites Catholic educators to courageously witness to the Faith and to the great value of Catholic education.  This witness is demonstrated most clearly in their consistent and perhaps courageous presentation of faithful Catholic education despite growing difficulties.  The steadfast support of the Catholic bishops, clergy, religious, and laity to this project will, by God’s grace, bring many blessings to the Church and to American society.


Many Diocesan and Private Catholic Schools Find Success Outside of Common Core

This publication is part of a series of reports on the Common Core State Standards Initiative and how those standards potentially impact Catholic education.

At least 33 Catholic dioceses and scores of private and independent Catholic schools across the United States have decided to take a cautious approach to the relatively new and untested “Common Core” and have opted out of using it so far. They have continued to use their own standards and curricula that have kept them at the top of the academic charts for decades. Their courage and conviction in not following the latest educational reform and sticking to what has been field-tested and fully vetted is worthy of review.  Here’s a brief overview of what some of these dioceses and schools have done.

The Archdiocese of Denver was among the first to acknowledge concerns and withhold acceptance of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Denver was soon followed by the Diocese of  Fargo and then the Dioceses of Pittsburgh,  ManchesterLansing, Madison, and Superior. Each of these confident and high-performing dioceses issued formal statements justifying their decisions not to jump on the Common Core bandwagon. Many published statements by the bishop or superintendent.

In some cases, statements came after thoughtful and heartfelt input from parents and from concerned faithful Catholics who had grave concerns about bringing the Common Core standards into Catholic schools. The parents’ concerns included a worry about a decline of Catholic identity; that the strict college and career focus of the utilitarian standards did not properly focus on the integral development of students; that the standards were in places less rigorous, slowed math progression and reduced exposure to great literature; that the standards were untested; and that the standards were thrust upon the nation without full disclosure about their impact and even their content. One of the earliest and most insightful groups of parents was Pittsburgh Catholics Against Common Core, who appealed to Bishop David Zubik to rely on the Diocese of Pittsburgh’s more complete Catholic standards.  Bishop Zubik, after careful consideration, later issued a statement assuring that only fully Catholic resource materials would be used in the schools and participation in any federal student data sharing would not occur.

Other dioceses have followed with similar policies, since the Common Core standards starting manifesting themselves in Catholic schools in 2012.  The Diocese of Baker, Oregon, is among the most recent to reject the full implementation of the math and English language arts standards, stating earlier this spring, “there are more than a few reasons to be cautious about adopting Common Core.”  These include the lack of endorsement by some English and math professors present on the original validation committee and concerns about potential content issues with history, health education and social studies.

Other dioceses not using the CCSS include Little RockNashville, and Wilmington. They have elected to continue the use of their own diocesan designed standards and curriculum guides. These tested and successful guides not only include specific standards but also resource material, formal and informal assessments, instructional approaches, student accommodations and suggestions for parental involvement.  Many of the standards, while self-selected, take into account some secular and professional standards and incorporate them into the diocesan designed program of study; the dioceses do not operate in a complete vacuum, although they do operate with a distinctly Catholic paradigm.

While it is uncertain from their websites whether other dioceses in Texas use the CCSS, the Diocese of Galveston-Houston and the Diocese of Dallas indicate that they use their own internally designed curriculum guides based on the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) and the International Reading Association (IRA).  The Diocese of Austin bases its standards on the TEKS.  These three dioceses educate 39,462 school children or 51 percent of the total Catholic student population taught in Texas (McDonald & Schultz, 2015).

Adjacent to Texas, the Dioceses of Tulsa and Oklahoma City use their own internal, previously generated curriculum guides and make no reference to the use of Common Core standards. Similarly, the dioceses in Nebraska and Virginia, whose state school officers never elected to incorporate the standards, do not use the Common Core. The dioceses in these four cities and states add another 63,953 Catholic school children being educated without Common Core (McDonald & Schultz, 2015).

At least seven of these non-Common Core dioceses have their curricula online:  CharlestonDallas, Denver, Galveston-HoustonNashvilleSuperior and Tulsa. Some dioceses have offices for curriculum and instruction and are able to work on these areas full-time. These dioceses use the existing professional, state and national standards along with the professional expertise of curriculum designers, members of the clergy, religious orders and input from teachers to create guides or standards for their school systems.

One problem faced by these non-adopting dioceses is how to steer clear of both the Common Core standards and the instructional approaches the standards employ, when using textbooks and materials created by publishers whose goods are stamped “Common Core aligned”. This has raised, and continues to raise, concerns among parents who see these books and worksheets coming home after having been told Common Core standards are not utilized in their diocese.

Sandra Leatherwood, director of Catholic education for the Diocese of Charleston, addresses this issue by saying that although it’s awfully hard to get around the use of Common Core- marketed materials, schools don’t have to teach the Common Core Standards when they use these books. They can use their own created curriculum guides. Like most dioceses that work under the concept of subsidiarity, in the Diocese of Charleston, representative teachers from each school gather first to develop the math and English standards and then bring them back to the individual schools for internal review and comment. In her Diocese, Leatherwood said the local teachers have the autonomy to select the textbooks that best align to their own created curriculum.  Leatherwood emphatically stated that the issue is not whether the textbook is aligned to Common Core, but whether the textbook aligns to the diocesan curriculum.

A number of Catholic schools and dioceses have come to see that choosing the best materials and using the best instructional methods means not incorporating all of the instructional “shifts” required by the Common Core standards, such as reducing selections of classical literature or implementing a recreation of the 1990s  “Math Wars”..  These schools and dioceses require instructional approaches that promote rigor and perseverance by forcing students to think for extended periods of time, pushing their developmental capacity.  Reducing classical selections that portray man in all the scenarios of his perpetual struggle to survive and buying literature anthologies that look like commercials are something these dioceses and private independent schools have chosen not to do. Rather they focus on the use of proven pedagogy and proven curricula that facilitate the search for authentic and transparent truth, whether inside or outside the specific text that children encounter.

Most of the dioceses that have not implemented the Common Core emphasize on their websites and official statements the desire to prepare students for more than college and career. These dioceses have taken to heart the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops clarification that the Common Core standards are “insufficient” to guide Catholic education.  These dioceses are upfront that the purpose of their schools is to educate the whole child in a unique Catholic worldview, where educational accomplishments sit alongside other milestones of life. They emphasize that their educational efforts are ordered toward the fulfillment of the whole person, and they do not view knowledge as primarily a commodity to be bought, sold and amassed for worldly success.

A Catholic school’s primary concern is not that students measure up to the standards of the world so that they can compete in the race for economic security and academic stature. Rather, Catholic schools fulfill an evangelizing mission of providing opportunities for their students to encounter Christ in a personal and intimate way.  Instilling virtue, integral formation and development of the soul and pursuing authentic truth in a culture of relativism are all central to a Catholic school’s standards and curriculum.  Catholic schools are much more than the Common Core.

Acknowledging this, and the fact that the vast majority of schools in the nation are singing from one sheet of music and following one “way” of going about the complex human activity that is education, some dioceses have gone a little further and are exploring a liberal arts/ classical curriculum model using original source documents and a structured developmental pedagogy.  And both the Diocese of Marquette and the Kaukauna Catholic School System in the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin, have decided to move toward the integration of English Language Arts and Social Studies into a combined Humanities program.

As with the best Catholic schools in the country, faith permeates the curriculum in these schools, but curriculum is framed around the historical development of Christianity and the developmental aptitudes of the child.  These schools are more concerned with process and excellence of content, rather than standards.  They are more concerned with setting a child’s imagination and creativity on fire, rather than unending mind-numbing assessments designed to quantify and measure learning so as to weed out bad schools and teachers.  Their classical, liberal-arts model emphasizes the use of inspired learning and authentic teacher-based assessment of student (not teacher or school) progress. Individualized attention, focus on tried and true stories emphasizing what is noble and normative of human excellence, happiness and flourishing, these schools are places of joy and intense academic growth.

There are many examples of individual schools seeking to break out of the cookie-cutter Common Core curricula and reclaim their rich heritage—and in the process, reclaim their market share.  Families stuck in Common Core schools are looking for something unique, something uncommon, something that will help their child stand out in a crowd, and more importantly help their child love school and love to learn for learning’s sake. Near-failing Catholic schools such as St. Jerome’s in Maryland have seen dramatic turnarounds by boldly proclaiming a Catholic and classical identity. Other schools formerly on the brink of closure such as St. John the Baptist Parish School in Ottsville, Penn., are seeking to follow suit and fight their way to prominence by being boldly Catholic and boldly counter-Common Core.

It’s not only existing Catholic schools that are recovering a sense of education that is beyond college and career; new schools are starting up to meet the need for something more than the Common Core.  The National Association of Private Catholic Independent Schools has seen a dramatic increase in membership since the Common Core started gaining a foothold in 2012. New private schools teaching the Catholic faith have sprung up in Arizona, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, South Carolina and Wisconsin.  Many of these schools are using a classical pedagogy and courses of study from foundational homeschool programs such as Kolbe Academy, Mother of Divine Grace and the new Chesterton Academies.  It is undetermined how many students these recognized members plus autonomous up-starts are teaching, but theirs is an upward trend (Donohue, 2014).  A newly formed support organization called  The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education has also seen rapid growth in the last two years, as it seeks to expose a hungry market to a comprehensive approach to education which is wholesome, weighty, meaningful, tested and soul-nourishing.

In time, there may be some fruits that come from the Common Core, but there is already plenty of good fruit on the table of classical and faith based-liberal arts schools.  The children are happy and well-fed.  Room for more fruit, once ripe and deemed healthful, can perhaps be made in the future with care.  Until then, there is much to feast upon while we wait—and waiting is something we Catholics do well.


Donohue, D. (2014). Private independent Catholic schools: Components of successful start-up schools. Accessible at

McDonald, D. & Schultz, M. (2015). The annual statistical report on schools, enrollment and staffing: United States Catholic elementary and secondary schools 2014-2015. (Arlington, VA: National Catholic Educational Association).

Disconnect between Common Core’s Literary Approach and Catholic Education’s Pursuit of Truth

Many of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts are, when taken in isolation and at face value, fairly innocuous.  Who, after all, could be against a fifth grader being  asked to “Compare and contrast two or more characters, settings or events in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., how characters interact)”?  Other Standards are more disconcerting; for a detailed review, see the NAPCIS Annotated Common Core Standards.

But a substantial concern is with the guiding educational philosophies behind the Common Core. These philosophies are present in what the Common Core describes as its “instructional shifts” and are the promise behind the standards:

These Standards are not intended to be new names for old ways of doing business. They are a call to take the next step. It is time for states to work together to build on lessons learned from two decades of standards based reforms. It is time to recognize that standards are not just promises to our children, but promises we intend to keep. (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010, Intro.)

The Common Core is about new ways of doing business (i.e., new ways of educating). They are a new promise, the next step, in education.  As has been argued elsewhere, the Common Core was unveiled nationally even though, as a whole, it was untried and untested. However, far from delivering a new way of doing business, what the Common Core has done is privilege one way of educating. The designing consultants have simply taken one side in ongoing, com- plex, pedagogical issues.  The Common Core’s national scope has thereby crowded out other voices and philosophies and hampered intellectual and pedagogical diversity.

In the highly idiosyncratic, dynamic, complex and necessarily personal world of human intellectual formation, there are many paths to excellence.  Catholic schools, with their unique focus on integral human formation and the celebration of truth, beauty and goodness, should protect their voice and their viewpoints. Catholic schools should understand and be aware of the Common Core shifts, reject their narrow and utilitarian philosophies, and seek to counter the Common Core’s effects with a distinctly more holistic and complete Catholic educational experience.

This report focuses primarily on the English Language Arts (ELA) standards, as those tend to have a greater immediate effect on Catholic identity.  (However, math too is affected, as one side in the ongoing  “math wars” has unilaterally claimed power.)  The Common Core has taken one side of a complex debate about different literary and interpretive theories and the nature and purpose of literature.

It is possible, of course, that the authors of the ELA standards are not even fully aware of what they have done.  The standards’ main architect, David Coleman, is neither a professor of literature nor has he ever taught literature in the K-12 environment.  He is an educational consultant who happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right connections with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to take the lead in transforming American literary education. And—like Common Core funder Bill Gates, who never went to college—Coleman seems to have little regard for the transformative or transcendental power of literature.  He once advised educators in a Common Core presentation: “[A]s you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give a s–t about what you feel or what you think” and, “It is rare in a working environment that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’” For Coleman and Gates, reading seems to be about distilling facts, writing is about reports and education is about college and career readiness.

According to this utilitarian approach to education, we need to fix America’s schools to ensure that we are able to produce workers who can compete in the 21st century global economy.  In order to ensure our success, the logic goes, we need extensive testing to ensure quality control both in student learning and in teacher efficacy. Enter the computer-based, massive, Common Core testing system being rolled out across the country this spring. Two versions of a new test being used to assess both the students and teachers in their mastery of the Common Core have been unleashed on our schools, teachers and students.  Much more, no doubt, will be said on this subject as the scores and uses of the scores become evident.

It is perhaps in the challenge of computerized high-stakes testing that we find one of the reasons for the Common Core’s alignment with one literary theory over all others.  The method advanced by the writers of the standards is what they call Close Analytic Reading or Close Reading and is very similar to a literary approach used in the 1940s and 1950s called New Criticism (Brizee & Tompkins, 2011).  According to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), one of the two testing consortia funded by the federal government to assess the standards:

Close, analytic reading stresses engaging with a text of sufficient complexity directly and examining meaning thoroughly and methodically, encouraging students to read and reread deliberately.  Directing student attention on the text itself empowers students to understand the central ideas and key supporting details.  It also enables students to reflect on the meanings of individual words and sentences; the order in which sentences unfold; and the development of ideas over the course of the text, which ultimately leads students to arrive at an understanding of the text as a whole. (PARCC, 2011, p. 7)

Close Reading/New Criticism allows for easier computer testing. There is the perception that if all we are testing is the text on the page, this will somehow be more objective.  Words are what they are.  The text in isolation can supposedly be tested in isolation with few variables and thus more accuracy. We can get to a simpler, fill-in-the-bubble “objective” response. This method may also be perceived as fairer to those who may not have robust life experiences to think about the meaning or implications of the text, even if the text comports with reality or truth outside of the text.  No opinions need to be considered or evaluated, which computers would have a hard time doing anyway.

So it’s an apparent win/win—the test gets more objective answers, and teaching gets easier since variables are reduced—but in fact the cost is quite high.  It is the eviscerating and over- simplification of the literary and reasoning experience.  Testing is often about limiting variables; education, on the other hand, is often about multiplying variables, about complexity, depth and richness that a student may very well miss if we are striving to get to the one, right bubbled answer.

The Close Reading/New  Criticism approach used by the Common Core not only assists in standardized testing, but it can also be used as a way to make sure that literature serves the pragmatic college and career focus of the Common Core.  From this perspective, the value of literature is not so much what it teaches us about how to live well, but that it teaches us how to read well (e.g. Just tell me what’s in the report, Johnson!).

Elements of New Criticism can be used as a means to this end by focusing simply on a systematic analysis of the text, objectifying the relationship between the text and its form, limiting the text to itself, and negating the reader ’s response and/or  the author’s intentions (Delahoyde, n.d.; Murfin & Ray, 1998).  New Criticism does not invite external socio-political or historical perspectives. As Delahoyde (n.d.) states:

The goal then is not the pursuit of sincerity or authenticity, but subtlety, unity, and integrity—and these are properties of the text, not the author.  The work is not the author ’s; it was detached at birth.  The author ’s intentions are “neither available nor desirable, [and] …meaning exists on the page, the meaning of the text is intrinsic and should not be confused with the author ’s intentions nor the work’s affective dimensions”. (Delahoyde, n.d., para. 3)

Here we see a limiting of the pursuit of truth by the actual formula used to analyze the text. Not only is the pursuit of truth limited in this approach, but the author ’s actual position is disregarded as well.

While the Close Reading approach advocated by the CCSS authors does rely heavily upon the search for the author ’s explicit and implied themes, many aspects of Close Reading are comparable to the New Criticism approach.  For instance, teachers are to give the text to the students with little to no background information and are not to add additional pieces of information to the discussion—something that other reading experts recommend doing (NCTE, 2004; Steven, 1982). The selected text itself sets the parameters of the discussion, and students are to answer questions from evidence within the text.

For example, here’s a Close Reading lesson from the Teaching Channel titled, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Secrets Behind What You Eat by Michael Pollan.  In the YouTube video (Stabrowski, 2014), the teacher demonstrates how to guide a group of students through a series of questions to see how the author has personified corn as an evil King and how corn has chased poor innocent animals and other crops off of the farm.  If the students do not arrive at the conclusion that corn is evil, then the teacher rewinds (meaning re-teaches) that portion of the lesson so that the students all understand this fact. Students read the text once to get the gist of the text. Then the teacher, or a good reader, reads the text aloud while the students listen and think about the text-dependent (pre-made) questions they are given to answer. When discussing the questions and answers, students are not to go outside of the text to research whether corn has any nutritional benefits or how it is exported to feed other countries.  They are not to bring up any personal thoughts about corn, only evidence from the text.  They are then instructed to correct or add to their answers, so that they are in conformity with the class discussion. Here we have a very concerted effort, and an entire class period, directed to making sure students have an exact understanding of the author ’s intentions, both explicit (with evidence from the text) and implied.  It is pretty hard for an elementary or middle school student to disagree, after this much effort has been put into understanding the author ’s viewpoint.

Pearson (2013), a member of the Common Core Validation Committee and proponent of the standards, has stated that Close Reading seems to squelch the activation of students’ prior knowledge (since all knowledge is remanded to the text), and the freedom to evaluate and compare is based upon this prohibited “outside” knowledge.  While he is concerned about the fact that cognitive learning theory is being neglected by this approach, he raises a more important issue: the suppression of freedom among the students and teachers to include other perspectives and considerations in addition to those advocated by the text and the author. Pearson explains this as the authors’ misunderstanding  about the process of comprehension and the fact that prior knowledge cannot be turned off or on at will. Pearson wonders if once a student learns about the authors’ points, can the student then use that information in the next selected reading of the author—extending the first selected text into the second, into the entire chapter, into the book—or must the reader be remanded to the selected piece in front of them?

In college and university literature departments around the country, discussions about the validity and applicability of various literary approaches in the pursuit of meaning are ongoing.  But for the teachers and students in American schools, the discussion has ended: Close Reading is it.

Our goal in teaching literature to kids is not just to prepare them for possible graduate school in English; our goal, especially in Catholic schools, is to form them and expose them to great, engaging, formative and normative literature and in the process instill in them a love and passion for reading great literature.  (See The Story Killers by Terrance Moore (2013) for an extended discussion of this point.)  Important to K-12 students is reading and engaging in well-crafted stories that will assist them in becoming wiser and better people, leading to more satisfying and richer lives. For our children, stories are not just about texts and techniques, but also about people and relationships.  Stories are not just about literary styles and interpretive complexities, but also about exploration into the imaginative and powerful terms surrounding the nature of reality, morality, faith and virtue. Great literature presents images of nobility and excellence—and their opposites—for our judgment and self-judgment, as we engage in deep and meaningful discussions about what it means to be a fully actualized, good human being. The textual technicalities and techniques, which are more easily tested and discussed using New Criticism and Close Reading, are means rather than ends in the K-12 literary experience—and this is most especially true for Catholic schools.

In Catholic schools, knowledge is attained when the human intellect, informed by the senses, judges things rightly.  Confining students to their own background knowledge or the point of view of the text rewards subjectivity and relativity, instead of Truth.   Concluding a lesson without having the opportunity to discuss other viewpoints that might in fact contain Truth, allows doubt, misinformation and even fallacy to solidify in the student’s mind. In catechesis, this would be like leaving students adrift after speaking about Creation and the Fall, putting off until later the promise of the Resurrection.  If these texts are so important to be analyzed in the light of close reading, then they are important enough to be read in the light of all of the viewpoints and perspectives that surround them.  As Fr. Robert Spitzer (2011) notes in a discussion of the pursuit of truth, there are far more errors of omission than commission, which means that leaving out data is just as harmful to the pursuit of truth as getting the wrong data or making logical errors.

Catholic educators, especially if they are using Common Core-developed texts and questions, need to look carefully at what texts and what questions are being left out. Their focus needs to be on the pursuit of the true, good and beautiful, not on getting the right answer on the Common Core test-inspired questions at the end of any publisher ’s provided worksheets. Catholic educators need to look deliberately and carefully at the real, rich and wonderful world outside the text. For the text, in combination with reality, may prove a mighty formative weapon. The text, in context, may very well brilliantly unveil reality—sometimes with life-changing effect. The purpose of reading is more than downloading text-limited knowledge. In addition, reading can sometimes simply be for pleasure, joy and wonder.  There is life outside of the Common Core and its tests.

Teachers in Catholic schools must move well beyond the Common Core in their much more profound efforts toward the integral formation of their students in mind, body and spirit. They do this through their intellectual and moral example, living the truth with love, and exposing their students to complex reality in all of its glorious manifestations.  In the Vatican’s document The Catholic School (1977), we read:

The school considers human knowledge as a truth to be discovered. In the measure in which subjects are taught by someone who knowingly and without restraint seeks the truth they are to that extent Christian. Discovery and awareness of truth leads man to the discovery of Truth itself.  (para. 41)

It also leads students to a discovery of Truth, Himself.  The purpose of our Catholic educational institutions, according to Pope Benedict (2008), is to first and foremost be a place where students can encounter the living God. Pope Benedict (2010) also reminds us that the purpose of our Catholic schools is to make saints!

Overuse of the methodology of Close Reading and a reconstituted literary approach of New Criticism is insufficient in the much broader and more complex pursuit of truth in which we are called to engage in our Catholic schools. There are other analytical tools and approaches in the field of literature that are also helpful to address the richness and power of literary possi- bility, creativity and passion. Among these are Reader/Response, Moral Criticism, and Struc- turalism (Brizee & Tompkins, 2011). Catholic students need rich exposure to Moral Criticism, which is more open to an analysis of the text’s teachings related to topics of wisdom, grace, beauty and virtue. (See for more on Moral Criticism.)  This broader interpretive framework will better enable Catholic schools to avoid unnecessarily or unwittingly narrowing their efforts.

Former Secretary for the Congregation for Catholic Education, Archbishop Michael Miller, C.S.B., describes this dynamic when he warns:

All too many Catholic schools fall into the trap of a secular academic success culture, putting their Christological focus and its accompanying understanding of the human person in second place.  Christ is “fitted in” rather than being the school’s vital principle (2006, p. 26).

He goes on to say, “This conviction about the nature of truth is too important for Catholics to be confused about,” (p. 46) and “Unlike skeptics and relativists, Catholic educators share a specific belief about truth: that, to a limited but real extent, it can be attained and communicated to others.”  He warns that:

Catholic schools (should) take up the daunting task of freeing boys and girls from the insidious consequences of what Pope Benedict XVI has called the “dictatorship of relativism”—a dictatorship that cripples all genuine education. Catholic teachers are to cultivate in themselves and develop in others a passion for truth that defeats moral and cultural relativism.  They are to educate “in the truth.” (p. 46)

Our standards, Catholic school standards, are not synonymous with the Common Core State Standards. As the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has pointed out, the Common Core Standards are in and of themselves insufficient to guide Catholic educational efforts (USCCB, 2014). Solomon (2003) states that standards represent a culture’s explicit statements that it “finds worthy of transmission” (p. 3). Our culture, as enshrined in the ubiquitous Common Core and its oppressive testing regimen, values a utilitarian approach to education that only half-prepares our students for life beyond high school graduation.  According to Archbishop Miller, “If a Catholic school is to deliver on its promise to provide students with an integral education, it must foster love for wisdom and truth, and must integrate faith, culture, and life” (p.45) by using instructional approaches that focus on much more than evidence from the text and whose horizon includes more than college and career.

There is much more to say regarding weaknesses in the Common Core ELA standards, especially another of the ELA shifts – graduated percentages of informational text.  The Common Core designers have errantly, without clear data or clear direction, mandated an increase in informational texts in all levels or all schools.  This, by necessity, means a  decrease in great literature.  More on this travesty will be forthcoming from The Cardinal Newman Society.

The Common Core’s dismissive attitude toward the transcendent power of literature is hopefully exposed not just by these articles but in reflecting again on Common Core architect David Coleman’s remarks, “[A]s you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a s–t about what you feel or what you think,” and “It is rare in a working environment that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’”  We can see how Catholic schools must completely reject these notions and their enshrinement in the Common Core.  We believe we are about authentic human excellence and human flourishing. We will, by happy circumstance, produce better workers and better scholars because we will produce better, more integrally developed, human persons.

Johnson may have a job, but will he have a life? Johnson’s boss may not care about what Johnson feels or thinks: but his wife will, and his children will, and his friends will, and his neighbors will, and if he is a teacher, his students will, and if he is a politician, his constituents will. And even his cynical boss may not care what Johnson thinks or feels, but his boss will care that Johnson thinks or feels. Johnson will not only be a stunted human being having learned under the Common Core, but he will also be a poorer employee.

Even public schools exist to produce thoughtful, productive and independent citizens in a democratic republic, not just workers and college students.   A strong democracy requires strong people, not just strong workers.  We need students to be more humanized in order to address the crisis and challenge of today’s world, not less.  This is not a time to set our sights on the “common” or the cultural status quo.  This is a time requiring vision and excellence.

In Catholic schools, we know we are not just producing workers and scholars, we are producing living, breathing, complex, contradictory, eternally destined, unrepeatable and immensely valuable human beings.  Our bishops and parishes do not support schools and keep them open to provide better “career and college readiness”.  They keep Catholic schools open to provide the liberation that comes from a thoughtful, loving and free encounter with the living God.  Catholic schools exist not for their pragmatic worldly usefulness, but rather to actuate the authentic freedom to which each person is called and to provide skills at apprehending and integrating reality, including that which transcends the text, in all of its fullness and glory.


Coleman, D., & Pimentel, S. (2012). Revised publishers’ criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English language arts and literacy, Grades 3–12. Retrieved from  http://www.

Benedict XVI, Pope Emeritus. (2008). Meeting with Catholic Educators: Address of His Holi- ness Benedict XVI. Retrieved from es/2008/april/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20080417_cath-univ-washington.html.

Benedict XVI, Pope Emeritus. (2010). Address of the Holy Father to pupils of St. Mary’s Univer- sity College. Retrieved from september/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20100917_mondo-educ.html.

Benedict, Pope Emeritus. (2014). Benedict XVI: Truth is not given up in the name of a desire for peace. Retrieved from in-the-name-of-a-desire-for-peace.

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Delahoyde, M. (n.d.). Introduction to literature: New criticism. Retrieved from  http://public.

Miller, Michael. (2006). The Holy See’s teaching on Catholic education. Atlanta, GA: Solidarity Association.

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Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. (2011). PARCC model con- tent frameworks: English language arts/literacy  grades 3-11. Retrieved from  www.parccon-

Pearson, P. (2013). Research foundations for the Common Core State Standards in English lan- guage arts. In S. Neuman and L. Gambrell (Eds.), Reading instruction in the age of Common Core State Standards. Newark, DE: International Reading Association. Retrieved from http://

Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education. (1977). The Catholic school. Rome, Italy: Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education.

Solomon, P. (2003). The curriculum bridge: From standards to actual classroom practice. Thou- sand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, Inc.

Spitzer, Robert. (2011). Ten universal principles: A brief philosophy of the life issues. San Fran- cisco, CA: Ignatius Press.

Stabrowski, S. (2014). The omnivore’s dilemma: Close reading of a non-fiction text. Retrieved from fiction-text-core-challenge.

Steven, K. (1982). Can we improve reading by teaching background information? Journal of Reading, 25, 326-329.

USCCB. (2014). Common core state standards FAQs. Retrieved from beliefs-and-teachings/how-we-teach/catholic-education/common-core-state-standards-faqs. cfm.

Common Core Assessments May Be Cost-Prohibitive for Catholic Schools

This is part of a series of reports on the Common Core State Standards Initiative and its potential impact on Catholic education.

Of key importance to parochial, private, and public school administrators and superintendents is the question of how to address the costs associated with the technological requirements for assessing students under the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Looking into what is being asked of schools by the two companies producing the CCSS assessments, one quickly sees that the expense associated with implementation of the new evaluation instruments is in excess of hundreds of thousands of dollars.  In addition to the cost of training teachers and purchasing the testing materials, school districts and private schools that choose to use Common Core Standards will find hardware costs taking a significant chunk out of their operating budgets.

Cost Drivers

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smart- er Balanced Assessment Consortium are both designing assessments for use with computers that have at least one gigabyte of memory and a screen display of 9.5 inches (10-inch class) at a resolution of 1,024 X 768 or greater (Norris & Soloway, 2013).  For optimal use, Smarter Balanced recommends at least an 80-GB hard drive or at least one GB of hard drive space be made available (Smarter Balanced, 2013a).  These requirements eliminate popular Netbooks and iPad minis or any of the new versions that have display sizes smaller than the required 9.5 inches.  Smarter Balanced recommends the iPad 3+ running iOS6 (Smarter Balanced, 2013a).

Additionally, many of the school systems and private schools are falling short of the recom- mended hardware-to-student ratio of 1:6-7 (Kantrowitz, 2013; Davis, 2012).  While there may be adequate technology available for Internet access, the support systems may be outdated or not compatible with the new assessment software.  For example, the testing software is not able to run on Microsoft XP systems. Thus these popular, well-functioning computers are not eligible for use with tests for this particular assessment.  Some states may initially choose to continue to use paper and pencil for their annual high-stakes tests, but this will not be an op- tion for schools that choose advanced techniques to master the Common Core assessments.

Inadequate bandwidth can also rule out some eligible computers and schools. At a minimum, additional bandwidth will be required along with the associated costs to enable simultaneous testing of multiple grades and sections.  What happens when not enough money is available? Will there be a divide between the “haves” and the “have nots?”  Who gets the new tests and other tools necessary to properly prepare students for these assessments?  How will these af- fect issues of adequacy and equity?  Will the lack of technology create a bigger achievement gap?

Of concern to administrators is the degree of technology dependence that has occurred throughout most programs associated with all schools. This reliance is evident and necessary, as there can be as many as five different tests administered within the year.  PARCC is developing three separate diagnostic tests (reading, writing, and mathematics) and both a mid-year and end-of-year assessment. In addition, two other performance tests associated with speech and listening are in the development stages (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers, 2013).   Smarter Balanced has similar requirements with both an interim and end of year assessment. Needs are enhanced when there is a quick turnaround time for school administrators and teachers to receive results, analyze them, and implement necessary instructional changes and interventions. In addition to student assessment, assessments will also be attached to some teacher evaluations whose deadlines vary throughout the year.

Teachers, as well as students, will need to become proficient on the use of testing software so that these variables are minimized when students are testing.  Nuances include kindergarten students being required to respond through a keyboard and students in grades four to five asked to type their responses in a minimum one-to two-page document (Carr & Dreilinger, 2013).  Time and money will need to be allocated toward teacher and student proficiency in online test-taking skills prior to any testing.

The per-pupil cost for PARCC assessments is quoted to be between $22.50 to $29.50, which is one reason why Florida opted out of these assessments (Chieppo & Gass, Aug. 15, 2013; Kantrowitz, October 15, 1013).  Georgia withdrew from PARCC, citing skyrocketing cost and loss of local control.  The GADOE intends to develop its own in-state tests aligned to Com- mon Core standards and is looking to other states to form possible partnerships in this development (Shearer, July 22, 2013).  Smarter Balanced tests are estimated to run from $22.50 to

$27.30, including scoring services (Smarter Balanced, 2013b).  According to Jacqueline King, Ph.D., (email communication, November 2013) private schools interested in participating in the Smarter Balanced testing option must be located in a state that is working with Smarter Balanced. Each state Department of Education has the option as to whether this arrangement exists.

Alternate Testing Possibilities

Options to the PARCC assessments include the new Aspire test being field tested by ACT. Scheduled for release in April 2014, Aspire was recently adopted by the state of Alabama (Stacey, 2013; ACT, personal communication, October 17, 2013).  This test will eliminate concerns about having to purchase computer software and hardware, as it offers an option of pencil and paper administration.  For scoring, schools can either mail in assessments with a turnaround time of 4-6 weeks or submit immediately through online access.  Aspire is being developed only for grades 3-8 and early high school (9th/10th  grade).  It is aligned to the Common Core Standards, and the reports will be coded to the pre-existing 1-36 scale of college readiness already used for the ACT exam. Per-pupil cost has yet to be released, but one can sign up on the ACT Website to receive immediate updates about the test’s release. Subject area exemplars are given on the website, and Common Core skills are evident, especially in the math exemplars where questions are asked as to how the student arrived at his or her answer.  At this time, ACT has not released how or who will grade these student self-response items, or if there is a local grading option. This test is available on the open market and not restricted to states that have signed on to one of the national testing consortia.

Private-school administrators who currently use the Iowa Test of Basic Skills may consider upgrading to Iowa Form E. Form E is the newest edition to the assessment suite of Iowa tests and was developed in 2010, before the Common Core Math and Language Arts Standards were finalized (Michele Baker, personal communication, Sept. 17, 2013). Norming for the 2010 Form E was performed in 2011, before most schools fully implemented CCSS. New norms for Form E can be expected every five years and according to Michele Baker, Senior Assessment Consultant for Riverside Publishing, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Form E will probably be available for 10 years or longer, at which time a newer edition will be released along with a new set of norms. By purchasing the Form E or Form F version (a parallel version in development) of the Iowa assessments, administrators would have the newest test based on pre-CCSS norms and full implementation.

Currently, Iowa Assessments have a turnaround time of about two weeks.  When tests are given in the fall (generally late September or early October) using a prescriptive approach for learning, it is not until November, after the administration reviews test results, that teachers are able to make classroom instructional changes.  By this time, 40 percent of the school year has passed.  With the new Iowa Form E assessment, a quick turnaround is now a possibility with the use of DataManager. This program is a robust online reporting system that provides administrators and teachers with almost immediate online reports.  While learning the system and how to request the reports might be a little time-consuming, anyone who has been granted access can generate a student report.  The Iowa Form E has also been aligned to the Common Core with a report option to print out a typical or traditional report, instead of the CCSS report.  This is beneficial for schools that may be in transition to new standards or that are waiting until the “dust has settled” before deciding to implement the CCSS.   Students can test in the traditional pencil and paper format, or the school can use an online computer testing option.  The per-pupil cost ranges from $7.43 to $10.08 for full DataManager reporting services, with an additional $3.00 for the Cognitive Abilities Test (Michele Baker, personal communication, September 17, 2013).  An additional benefit of using the Iowa tests is the use of standard scores students receive on Iowa tests, which have been validated and found to have a strong relationship with ACT college benchmark scores for college readiness (University of Iowa, n.d).

Private schools can also continue using the reasonably priced Stanford 10 for annual assessments.  These assessments were developed from a variety of professional organizations (International Reading Association, National Council of Teachers of English, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) and were normed in 2007, prior to CCSS.  The Stanford 10, Form A has been aligned to the CCSS.  The cost is between $7.78 and $9.28 per student test with answer sheets costing $2.00 each.

It seems that for parochial, private, and public schools that are committed to any of the testing consortia, little can be done to escape the costs and time necessary for technology upgrades and teacher and student training.  For schools that are considering the CCSS assessment options and are in states governed by one of the consortia, considerations including computer upgrades, additional per-pupil testing costs, and possible additional testing time need to be budgeted and allotted.  Additional time is also required to train the students and teachers on the test-taking.  Until the impact of the CCSS initiative along with the newly designed testing instruments is realized, and in consideration of the research reported on this topic, schools can find a safe haven, at least for the time being, in the Iowa Forms E & F and Stanford 10 traditional assessments.


Carr, S. & Dreilinger, D. (September 29, 2013). “A Core dilemma: Will the littlest learners be able to type?”, The Hechinger Report. Retrieved from core-dilemma-will-the-littlest-learners-be-able-to-type_13198.

Chieppo, C. & Gass, J. (August 15, 2013). “Why states are backing out on common core standards and tests,” The Hechinger Report. Retrieved from why-states-are-backing-out-on-common-standards-and-tests_12895.

Davis, M. (2012). “Are You Tech-Ready for the Common Core?”, Education Week. Retrieved from

Kantrowitz, B. (October 15, 2013). “Testing the Common Core in Tennessee,”The Hechinger Report. Retrieved from nessee_13468.

Norris, C., & Soloway, E. (2013). “Common Core Technological Standards: They Are the Tail, Not the Dog,” The Journal. Retrieved from Common-Core-Technological-Standards.aspx?p=1.

Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers (2013). PARCC Test Administration Policies. Retrieved from

Shearer, L. (July 22, 2013). “Georgia will drop out of Common Core-aligned testing consor- tium.” Retrieved from out-common-core-aligned-testing-consortium.

Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (February, 2013a). “Hardware and Software Requirements Overview.” Retrieved from

Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (2013b). “Frequently Asked Questions.” Retrieved from

Stacey, E. (February 13, 2013). “Alabama Exits National Common Core Tests.” Retrieved from

University of Iowa (n.d.). “Tracking Growth towards Readiness with the Iowa Tests.” Retrieved from Final.pdf.

Catholic Identity Should Be at Heart of Common Core Decisions

This is part of a series of reports on the Common Core State Standards Initative and its potential impact on Catholic education.

As a former Catholic school administrator, of interest to me are the countless articles detailing the controversy surrounding the Common Core which are dominating educational news stories throughout the United States.  While passionate authors express their concerns regarding everything from the federalization of education to compromised standards, of most concern to those who share a passion for the mission of Catholic education are suggestions that adoption of the Common Core could compromise the mission of the Catholic education and ultimately secularize its schools.

Detailed throughout the magisterial teachings of the Church, the mission of Catholic education is described in the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education’s document, Lay Catholics, Witnesses to Faith (1982):

The integral formation of the human person, which is the purpose of education, includes the development of all the human faculties of the students, together with preparation for professional life, formation of ethical and social awareness, becoming aware of the transcendental, and religious education.  Every school, and every educator in the school, ought to be striving “to form strong and responsible individuals, who are capable of making free and correct choices,” thus preparing young people “to open themselves more and more to reality, and to form in themselves a clear idea of the meaning of life” (#17).

How the Catholic Church fulfills its role in Catholic education is outlined in the Code of Canon Law.   The Church has a duty and right in education in fulfilling its mission (Canon 794) and considers schools to be of great importance in assisting parents to fulfill the responsibility associated with the education of their children (Canon 796). Acknowledging parents have freedom in their choice of schools (Canon 797), the Church has the right to direct schools (Canon 800), “secure that in civil society the laws which regulate the formation of the young,” (Canon 799), and strive to keep alive the mission of Catholic education (Canon 801).

In regard to the Common Core, how do these standards impact the mission and Catholic identity of schools?  As a former accreditation chair for the Southern Association of Independent Schools (offering a dual accreditation from AdvancEd & SAIS), I found that those not entrenched in educationaleze often used terms such as standards and curriculum synonymously. The Foundation for Educational Excellence defines standards as expectations as to what is to be learned at each grade level and discipline.  A curriculum is the actual program, textbooks, materials, assessments and resources selected by the school to teach and ensure standards are achieved or “a means to the end”. Standards do not dictate how or by what means a concept is taught but present, at a minimum, concepts to be mastered.

Historically, schools have been evaluated for quality since 1895 (AdvancEd website).  More than one-hundred years later, regardless of the accreditation agency (secular, independent, Catholic), guidelines for accreditation include purpose or mission, leadership, teaching and learning, resources, and opportunities available for continuous improvement.  Under teaching and learning, schools must adopt academic standards that set expectations for learning, provide for continuity of instruction across subject areas and grade levels, benchmark progress, and create a foundation for standardized testing.  In our data-driven world, standards actually provide the measurable outcomes many parents equate with academic excellence. Standards do not provide a ceiling on what a student can learn; they provide a framework for the minimum of what must be achieved during a given year. It is important to note, accreditation guidelines do not dictate curriculum or pedagogy but look to see if the curriculum guides chosen (along with materials and resources) support the purpose or mission of the school.

What is clear about non-public schools, is the flexibility to choose a curriculum with goals in line with the mission of the school and that of Catholic education. How a curriculum is chosen in a Catholic school is primarily determined by how it is governed (archdiocesan, independent, regional, parochial, etc…). Most importantly, Catholic schools are under the authority of an ecclesiastical authority (Canon 803) with instruction and education required to be grounded in Catholic doctrine (Canon 803 § 2).  Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the Principal/ Head of School to closely oversee and monitor the implementation of the academic program to ensure that the mission of the school is supported and Catholic identity is not compromised.

From a Catholic identity perspective, a debate could be suggested as to whether the mission of Catholic education is truly at the center of the controversy surrounding the Common Core. If we take to heart the integral formation of each child and consider the goals set forth by the USCCB in Renewing our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium (2005), efforts surrounding the nuances of the Common Core need to be directed to ensuring that Catholic school leadership understands and supports the mission of Catholic education, that parents are considered partners in the education of their children, and ecclesiastical authorities (or their delegates) ensure that the standards and curriculum used in ev- ery school support and strengthen Catholic identity.  A discussion as to how Catholic school leaders assess excellence in education should be at the forefront of conversations surrounding Catholic education.  Are academic outcomes (SAT, PSAT, ACT, college acceptance) how we measure the success of Catholic education?  How do Catholic school leaders gauge whether the integral formation of each child has been achieved?

The Common Core has brought to the attention of countless individuals, many the product of a Catholic education, the need to refocus efforts to ensure that Catholic identity is at the fore- front of discussions related to adoption of the curriculum in Catholic schools.  Ecclesiastical leaders must give consideration to educational mandates not created by the Catholic Church. Governing boards, clergy, and superintendents need to carefully weigh who is placed in the position of Principal/Head  of School and entrusted with the academic, managerial, and spiri- tual leadership of the school.  Catholic parents have both the obligation and the right to edu- cate their children in the Catholic faith (Canon 793) and must act as an advocate for their child by working in partnership with the school.  It is the obligation of all constituencies to protect and defend Catholic education, as it is one of the primary evangelization arms of the Church with a legacy that spans over a century.

Catholic Education in America: Accountable to the Church or the Feds?

This is part of a series of reports on the Common Core State Standards Initative and its potential impact on Catholic education.

Catholic schools in America have flourished in large part because of their relative independence from outside influences. But the recent adoption by many Catholic schools of the Common Core standards and tests threatens their ability to fulfill their mission and be faithful to a Catholic vision of education.

The Common Core is a bureaucratic effort to further centralize control over education in America.  Seduced by federal incentives, 45 states agreed to adopt the Common Core in 2009. As schools implement the standards one thing grows clear: the Common Core weakens their ability to direct what they teach the children in their care.  This is particularly problematic for Catholic education.

Heather Crossin’s third-grade daughter goes to a Catholic school in Indiana.  Heather says that when her daughter came home from school with a text book aligned with Common Core, she realized control over what her child was taught had not only left the school building—it had left the state.

In the 45 states that have signed on to the Common Core, parents who send their children to public schools will soon see this scenario play out.  But it is increasingly a reality in private and Catholic education too.

Many dioceses and archdioceses have decided to implement or “adopt” the Common Core national standards.  Last May, the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) issued a statement offering its full support of the standards, arguing that implementation would not hinder the teaching of the Catholic Church.

However, Common Core standards are problematic for all of America’s schools—private and public.  Since the majority of Catholic children are educated in our nation’s public schools, Catholic parents should be concerned about whether their local school district, their local principal and their children’s primary teachers have ceded authority to bureaucratic “experts” in Washington, D.C.

A true “common core” teaching of Catholic social thought is the principle of subsidiarity, which counsels that decisions be made at the most effective local level.  The principle of subsidiarity empowers parents, in consultation with local teachers, schools and churches, to decide which sort of education is best for their children.  The Common Core national standards say the opposite: that educational decision-making is best made at the national level.

Common Core aims to impose one set of standards defining what every public school student in America will learn.  As a result of textbook spillover, state regulations and concerns about college-test preparations, many private and parochial schools will be subject to Common Core as well.

They shouldn’t.

The mission of Catholic education is to cultivate the moral and intellectual development of all students, forming their hearts and minds by orienting them to their identity in Christ and His Church while providing an excellent academic education.  Catholic education, by its very nature, requires that local parishes and parents be in charge of the educational decision- making that prepares students for this life, and the life after.

But Common Core is oriented toward different ends.

Since Washington got involved in education with the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the federal government has spent over $2 trillion on K-12 education, tying the hands of local school leaders with red tape and further burdening education with the bureaucracy of an ever-growing administrative state.

Educational achievement has flat-lined despite a near tripling of inflation-adjusted, per-pupil spending by the federal government.  High school seniors are no better off today than the seniors of the 1970s.  Graduation rates for disadvantaged students have remained stagnant. The United States continues to fall behind international competitors.

The federal government’s solution?  Spend more money and usurp more authority from states and parents over what children are being taught.  The Common Core is an extension of this misguided logic—and it is covered with federal fingerprints.

Developed in 2009 by private interest groups in Washington, Common Core was immediately incentivized by the federal government.  The Obama administration offered $4.35 billion through Race to the Top, a competitive grant program.  Perhaps even more enticing, the administration circumvented Congress by offering waivers to states—and now local school districts—from the No Child Left Behind law if they adopted Common Core.

Nearly every state that received a waiver used Common Core to meet the federal requirement to adopt “college and career-ready” standards.  The government also directly financed the two national testing consortia—the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment—tasked with designing Common Core-aligned assessments.  Finally, the U.S. Department of Education created a bureaucratically titled “Technical Review Panel” to oversee assessment items.

Not only is Common Core costly in terms of educational liberty, it will also financially strap states and schools.

A study released by the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy estimates that the cost to states of implementing Common Core will reach $16 billion over the next seven years.  Nearly half of the states that have agreed to adopt Common Core already are seeing their testing costs double under the Washington-approved standards.

Despite evident threats imposed by Common Core, states, schools, and districts press on with implementation.  But concerns are growing louder and harder to ignore.

In October, 132 Catholic professors signed a letter sent to each Catholic bishop in the United States, outlining the threat Common Core poses to Catholic education.

The professors’ plea:

We write to you because of what the particular deficiencies of Common Core reveal about the philosophy and the basic aims of the reform. We write to you because we think that this philosophy and these aims will undermine Catholic education and dramatically diminish our children’s horizons. Promoters of the Common Core say that it is designed to make America’s children ‘college and career ready.’ We instead judge Common Core to be a recipe for standardized workforce preparation. Common Core shortchanges the central goals of all sound education and surely those of Catholic education: to grow in the virtues necessary to know, love, and serve the Lord, to mature into a responsible democratic self-government. Common Core adopts a bottom-line, pragmatic approach to education.

The deficiencies in Common Core noted by the professors stem from analyses by James Milgram, professor emeritus of mathematics at Stanford, and Sandra Stotsky, professor of education reform emerita at University of Arkansas, both of whom sat on Common Core’s review committee.  They dismissed themselves before the release of the standards because of their concerns with the content.

Dr. Milgram says the mathematics standards will put American students two grades behind international peers by the time they reach seventh grade.  Common Core’s sequencing pushes Algebra I off until ninth grade, when most states had been moving toward Algebra I in eighth grade.  The delay makes students less ready for most four-year universities.

Dr. Stotsky has similar concerns with the content of the English standards.  The diminished emphasis on literature, she says, “makes it unlikely that American students will study a meaningful range of culturally and historically significant literary works before graduation.” She also argues that emphasizing informational text over literature “may lead to a decreased capacity for analytical thinking.”

Catholic schools should not turn over control of curriculum to anonymous boards of experts. Catholic education should recognize the potential in all students and the value of liberal learning regardless of career choices.

Some may argue that because the SAT and ACT college entrance exams have been aligned to the national standards, Catholic schools must adopt them so that their students do well on those exams.  This is unlikely to be so.

By and large, Catholic school students outperform public school students by a significant margin.  According to the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, 49 percent of Catholic school eighth-graders are proficient in reading compared to 31 percent of public school students.  Also, 33 percent of Catholic school eighth-graders are proficient in mathematics compared to 26 percent of their peers in public school.

If Common Core pushes back Algebra I by two grade levels for most public schools, what effect will it have on math achievement in Catholic schools?

If Catholic school students significantly outperform public-school counterparts in English because Catholic curricula emphasize literature, what will happen when Catholic schools implement Common Core with its emphasis on informational text such as EPA manuals and executive orders?

The letter from Catholic professors expands on this point:

The history of Catholic education is rich in tradition and excellence.  It embraces the academic inheritance of St. Anselm, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Blessed John Henry Newman.  In contrast to such academic rigor, the Common Core standards lack an empirical evidentiary basis and have not been field-tested anywhere.

What great works will Catholic school teachers have to give up to make room for the mandated dose of bureaucratically sanctioned informational texts?

It’s not too late for Catholic schools to reject Common Core, this latest federal overreach. It’s not too late to reclaim all that makes Catholic education unique and reflects the values of Catholic families.  It’s not too late to ensure that local parishes and schools are in the driver’s seat when it comes to defining curricula for our children.

The Common Core and the Private School: The Overreaching Effects of a National Standard

This is part of a series of research reports on the Common Core.

As parents, educators, and legislators learn more about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and doubts continue to rise, the fact that the CCSS have become a national standard presents real challenges to a group that is already providing excellent education—private, faith-based schools.

These schools are successful because of their ability to maintain autonomy, and, in the case of religious schools, their faith-based mission. They enjoy the freedom to make decisions regarding curriculum and teaching methods that best follow their mission. This kind of “local control” allows them to best meet the individual educational needs of their students, and, in the case of faith-based schools, provide an excellent education from a religious worldview. They are not funded by tax dollars, and their accountability is to the parents— the strongest accountability a school can have.  Although these schools are not required to follow government direction regarding standards and curriculum, the CCSS as a national standard will negatively affect the autonomy of these schools, chipping away at the religious freedom enjoyed by faith-based schools.

The CCSS began as a joint effort between the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSSO) to design a set of curriculum standards that could help all students reach the same base-line goals. This collaboration was initially funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and resulted in the publication of the Common Core Standards, issued in April 2010.  The first two sets of standards published were in Mathematics and English Language Arts. Remaining to be published are standards in Science and Social Studies, both of which arguably could be the more controversial of the four standards, especially for faith-based or classical curriculum-based schools.

Since the release of the CCSS in 2010, there has been a growing controversy surrounding the standards. Supporters claim the CCSS will allegedly raise the standard of education in America, increase literacy, and prepare students for college and global competitiveness, while the opposition argues that the standards are nothing more than a national standard that impedes educational progress by imposing a “one size fits all approach” from the federal government.  Educational experts have pointed out that the goal of a national standard inevitably will be to close the achievement gap, which will result in mediocre academics and a “race to the middle.”

More specifically, the English Language Arts standards have been criticized for being heavy on the technical and informative writing, and lacking in the classics. The Mathematics standards received criticism for only taking students to math skills of Algebra 2, rather than reaching for skills developed through trigonometry and calculus. Additionally, there has been a flurry of state legislative pushback as states realize the high cost of implementation and assessments for the CCSS. The American Federation of Teachers called for a moratorium on the CCSS due to a lack of professional development to prepare teachers for implementing the CCSS.1 Even several U.S. Senators have written a joint letter opposing the standards based on the fact that the standards are tied to federal dollars which means they are not simply a “state-led” effort.

This may be the most troublesome problem with the CCSS – the strong ties to billions of federal dollars. While the CCSS may have started out as an effort between the NGA and the CCSSSO, the federal Race to the Top funds – for which states competed in 2010 through 2012 – were contingent on states’ adoption of the CCSS. Adoption of “college and career ready standards” constituted 40 of the possible 500 points in the Race to the Top application, and the CCSS were the only standards that met the criteria for that definition. Indeed, this “dangling carrot” in the form of billions of dollars caused 45 states and the District of Columbia to adopt the CCSS before they were even released (and, as noted earlier, are still not finalized as in the case of the social studies and science standards).  An additional $350 million was awarded to two consortia of states through the Race to the Top Assessment competition to develop an assessment that was aligned with the CCSS.

Then, in the spring of 2013 the U.S. Department of Education established a federal review board whose sole purpose is to assess the assessment for the CCSS. With the amount of federal funds being poured into the CCSS adoption, the assessments, and the review of the assessments, the CCSS really cannot be called a “voluntary, state-led” effort.  Rather, it has become a standard with the financial backing and support of the federal government.  One could arguably call this a federal standard.

This is not the first time a national standard has been considered by the federal government. In 1995, a national standard for social studies was voted down 99-1 by the U.S. Senate because the standards had become too politicized. This is one of the problems of a national standard:  It easily becomes politicized and influenced by controversial societal norms.  Such politicization will undoubtedly conflict with traditional values and beliefs undergirding the teaching-learning process.  In 1995, political correctness rose up against historical fact, weakening the educational value and demonstrating the danger of politicization when government decides standards.

Another major problem with the CCSS lies in the fact that a national standard by default will bring a national curriculum and a national test.  (What good is the standard without a curriculum to meet the standard and a test to ensure the standard has been met?) As previously mentioned, the U.S. Department of Education has not only incentivized the creation of a national test for the CCSS, it also established a review board to assess the assessment!  With an endorsement like this from the federal government, the standards and the tests will clearly be controlled from the federal level, rather than the local level where the best educational decisions can be made.2 3

So what does the CCSS mean for private, faith-based schools if they are not required by the government to follow the standards? Consider a few important facts: Recent announcements reveal that the ACT, SAT, and GED tests will be aligned to the CCSS. Students in private, faith-based schools take these tests.  As teachers in these schools prepare their students for these tests, they will need to include the information which is necessary to succeed on these tests and this could potentially conflict with their freedom to teach from a religious worldview or in a way that best reflects their core educational beliefs.  When students apply to colleges and universities, their transcripts are considered for acceptance. Students could face discrimination by a higher education entity if they graduated from a school that did not adhere to the CCSS. Scholarship money for students desiring to be teachers could be tied to whether or not the college to which the student is applying is teaching the CCSS and the methodologies necessary to work in that environment.

The University of California already refuses to accept some high school credits that follow certain Christian-based textbooks, so it is not a far-fetched idea that colleges will accept only those course credits that follow texts and content aligned with the CCSS. This is all ironic of course, considering that it is a well-known fact that students from private, faith-based schools generally do much better on college entrance tests and are much better prepared for college.4  This all places a burden on the private, faith-based school to prove its academics are of a higher quality, exceeding the standards.

Education in America has always thrived because of its diversity and freedom.  Improved educational quality will not result from federally-coerced uniformity.  Rather, a better path to raising standards would be to establish educational options that would not only improve education in all schools but would also protect the autonomy and religious liberty that allow private, faith-based schools great success.


Do Catholic Schools Need the Common Core?

The following considerations related to the Common Core were provided to Catholic bishops on November 13, 2013, in Baltimore, Maryland. The Cardinal Newman Society partnered with the National Association of Private Catholic and Independent Schools and the Catholic Education Foundation to present a seminar on the Common Core during the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

This publication is part of a series of reports on the Common Core State Standards Initiative and how those standards potentially impact Catholic education.

Our core is the Catholic Faith.

  • The core purpose of Catholic education is student formation and nurturing souls.1 These must be the primary standards from which curriculum and teaching methods are developed and schools are assessed.
  • Catholic identity is not an add-on; it cannot be reduced to values and traditions to be “infused”2 into secular standards. The standards will determine how and what to teach and how schools are evaluated.
  • Catholic schools are successful because of their mission… period. Their emphasis on faith and formation points to classical curricula, good literature, reason and ethics, and individualized attention.
  • Mission drives standards; standards drive curriculum and teaching. Our mission and that of government schools are profoundly different, and different missions demand different standards.
  • Common  Core  is  explicitly  and  only  “college  and  career”  focused.    Our  schools  are focused on assisting our students to encounter Christ and to pursue truth, beauty and goodness.  In the process, they are also well-prepared for college and life beyond.
  • Education should prepare students for life, but college and career cannot be the sole or primary objectives for Catholic school standards.3 Educating for secular ends leads to either pride or despair.
  • Our standards must inspire, not content with the minimum but pressing forward to- ward the maximum.

Catholic schools are already among the best in the nation.

  • On the federal NAEP tests, Catholic schools have significantly outperformed public schools for 20 years. Grade 8 scores in 2013: Reading 286 (public schools 226), Math 295 (public schools 284).4
  • In 2011, religious schools far outperformed public schools on the SAT: Reading 531 (public schools 449), Math 533 (public schools 506), Writing 528 (public schools 483).5
  • Parents care about Catholic identity, school environment and learning outcomes—in- cluding test scores and high school/college  success. But they don’t seek conformity to public school standards.
  • Standards influence how and what students learn, but there is no certain correlation between standards and test scores. States with standards rated both “A” and “F” by the Fordham Institute report similar test scores.6
  • Catholic schools can excel on nationally normed, non-Common Core tests available for the next several years.7 Afterward, testing companies will be eager to serve our schools’ 2 million students.8
  • Avoiding Common Core will highlight Catholic school competitive advantages: choice, freedom, authentic difference, human excellence, Christian faith, proven, successful, safe, outstanding education.

Catholic schools already prepare for college and careers.

  • Catholic high schools have a 99% graduation rate (73% public schools), and 85% of Catholic high school graduates attend four-year colleges (44% public schools).9
  • Good teaching can ensure success on college entrance exams, even when Common Core-compliant, perhaps with some test preparation. The ACT is not changing signifi- cantly, so scores should be stable.10

Common Core is not required for Catholic schools.

  • No government or accreditor requires Catholic schools to adopt Common Core.
  • Some  states  may  tie  Common  Core  to  funding.  The  Church  should  defend  religious liberty and school choice without compromising Catholic schools’ autonomy.
  • We must lead with confidence; we do not follow in fear or from intimidation. We do not simply “get on board” because others are doing it.  Common Core is becoming toxic, and every failure will be laid at our doorstep if we rush into this.

Common Core seeks radical change in education.

  • “The  Common  Core  represents  a  fundamental  shift  in  the  teaching  and  learning process.”11 It proposes to fix broken public schools, but Catholic schools are not broken.
  • Common Core embraces theories of exploration learning and constructivism, conflict- ing with the proven method of direct instruction in younger grades.12
  • Common Core is largely a privately funded initiative of the morally reprehensible Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,13 which pays the NCEA to promote Common Core.14
  • Common Core advocates reassure parents that the standards “are not a curriculum.”15 That’s a red herring. The standards are intended to drive changes in curriculum, teach- ing and assessment.16

Common Core is untested and experimental.

  • Before any intervention, there should be 1) a need and 2) empirical evidence that the need will be satisfied. Common Core offers neither; its standards have never been test- ed.17 They were developed by little-known “experts” with no solid research basis, de- spite misleading claims.18
  • Common Core’s proponents—the Gates Foundation, several state governors and school leaders, the Obama administration, and “big business”—have quietly avoided public scrutiny and accountability by working around Congress, state legislatures, and now Catholic school educators and parents.
  • Common  Core’s  emphasis  on  informational  texts  depends  upon  distortions  of  NAEP data and lacks solid evidence. The 2006 federal Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) found that higher literacy scores correlate to more reading of novels and less frequent reading of information.19

The Common Core standards are flawed.

  • Common Core demands greater emphasis on reading informational texts, with a cor- responding decrease in great literature.20 Some recommended (not required) texts are morally problematic.
  • Common Core imposes “reform math,” not our traditional and successful math pro- grams. It lowers standards: pre-algebra or algebra is no longer the eighth-grade norm, nor pre-calculus or calculus for 12th grade.21 22
  • There  is  a  misalignment  with  early  grade  expectations  and  lack  of  detail  in  upper grades.23
  • There is a lack of specific content knowledge; too much is simply skills-based.24

Common Core aims for nationalization, not pluralism.

  • The Church favors “a plurality of school systems” to “safeguard her objectives in the face of cultural pluralism” and increasing state control of education.25 Common Core seeks national uniformity.
  • Catholic schools risk losing autonomy by accepting national standards. The Church’s relationship to the state should focus on protecting autonomy and school choice, not embracing national uniformity.26
  • Common Core is quickly moving toward a state and federal government program. It is becoming a political issue in the states, and the Obama administration has tied it to federal funds.
  • It is not valid to argue that we must follow Common Core because we always follow state standards. This is something much more, aiming for nationalization and substan- tial change. Common Core is under intense scrutiny, in ways that state standards never were.

Common Core poses a creeping threat to schools’ Catholic identity.

  • Common  Core  reduces  Catholic  school  autonomy  and  focuses  assessment  on  secular objectives, thereby distracting educators from their core mission. Catholic schools have always  been  independent,  but  beware  the  secularizing  path  of  Catholic  universities, hospitals and charities.
  • Common Core’s priorities “crowd out” the elements of a rigorous, classical Catholic education, emphasizing skills and practicality over vocation and reasoning from a foundation of truth.
  • State and federal involvement in Common Core could lead to religious liberty viola- tions. Catholic schools’ protection depends on consistent Catholic identity27 — which Common Core diminishes.

Bishops, parents and educators are being ignored.

  • We can see no evidence that the NCEA and many diocesan educational leaders have listened to the bishops on Common Core, recognizing their canonical authority and responsibility for the Catholic identity of our schools.
  • Parents have been poorly informed and not consulted about Common Core changes in Catholic schools, despite their primary authority and responsibility for the education of their children.
  • Catholic school teachers and principals also have been poorly informed and not prop- erly consulted about Common Core. Among the nation’s best Catholic High School Honor Roll schools, 92% of principals have concerns about Common Core’s impact on Catholic identity.28
  • Should we not pause and more carefully study and evaluate the Common Core?


10 Critically Important Adaptations to the Common Core for Catholic Schools*

This publication is part of a series of reports on the Common Core State Standards Initiative and how those standards potentially impact Catholic education. 

As of yet, there has been no serious effort to analyze the impact of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)1  on Catholic education—one that engages Catholic school educators at all levels as well as parents, the primary educators of their children. In view of the current environment, it would seem reasonable for those in leadership positions in Catholic education to pause, reflect and plan prior to moving forward with either adopting or adapting the CCSS.

But in the complex environment of operating a Catholic school system, there may be instances where, for whatever reason, a Catholic School has decided to implement the Common Core State Standards.  These schools claim that they are not entirely assimilating the troubled and controversial public school standards, but rather “adapting” the standards by changing them to fit with their Catholic mission and pursuit of academic excellence.

While such an attempt (sincerely implemented) is a step above merely copying the public school system, it does not address the fundamental conflict associated with the integral formation of students.  Since standards drive curriculum, a Catholic curriculum must include standards that are integrated with the magisterial teachings of the Catholic Church.

For example, consider that Catholics have much to say about literature, history, science, and, above all, about Truth, goodness, and beauty.  And, since the object of every academic disci- pline is truth, the Catholic curriculum should be based on the conviction that all truths ultimately converge in their source—God.  This standard, among others, is sorely lacking in the Common Core.

If a Catholic school or school system chooses to take the more problematic road of adapting the Common Core Standards (as opposed to creating their own standards), the Catholic school system would greatly benefit from a public discussion (or basic research) about how—if at all—Catholic schools are actually changing the Common Core. Additionally, parents should ask their Catholic school officials what elements of the Common Core (if any) they have found necessary to change/adapt.

As yet, there has not been a significant study or public discussion as to what possible changes Catholic schools might be making in voluntarily implementing the Common Core in our schools. I would like to take the initiative to begin this discussion by enumerating ten important changes to consider.

1. Renounce the English Language Arts (ELA) Percentages for Literary and Informational Texts (which are not research-based).2

  • Do not alter your literature selections based on the standards.  Stick with the best literature from recognized masters. Use great works with compelling themes that speak to the heart of the human condition across the ages. Do not remove poetry, drama or literature; conversely, do not artificially add more informational texts into your ELA program.
  • Throw out the Common Core Appendices. These claim to provide examples and recommended texts. Stick to your tried and true curriculum as much as possible if using Common Core Standards.

2. Reduce textbook use when possible.3

  • Move to actual documents and unadapted works. Middle and high school students should not use mass-produced anthologies. Give them the actual texts. This allows them to mark up the texts and keep them on their library shelves at home for future reference or re-reading. Also, a “between-the-covers book” slows down instruction and respects the dignity of the work.  It allows the students to feel that they are getting the “real deal” and not an excerpt or adapted exposure to the brightest and most creative minds. Even if they do not read the entire work, students now have access to it.
  • Set your teachers and students free with authentic, un-sanitized texts and original questions and assignments. Because the Common Core allows for generic national lessons and lesson plans on topics presented in textbooks, there is a risk of homogenization and standardization, which runs contrary to human diversity and exploration.

3. Respond to the texts, not the Standards.

  • Do not use the Common Core Standards as the primary guide for inquiry into litera- ture. The Standards attempt to dissect literature into a set of measurable skills or generic questions.4   However, literary study should not be stuffed into a pre-determined standard or examined with canned questions, which do not directly emanate from the experience of reading a particular work. Literature needs to be unleashed and encountered “as litera- ture”—the product of a creative mind in dialogue with the reader in exploring the human condition. Treating literature simply as grist for the mill of college and career readiness saps its transformative power of inquiry and translation of experience. Yes, there are some relevant skills that the discipline of literary study requires, and the Common Core identifies some of these; however, development of these skills/tools  should not become the goal of reading great works.
  • Stay away from canned materials and exemplar units. The best teaching is creative, adaptive and natural, as the teacher and students explore the wonders of reality together with joy, passion and excitement. Keep your teachers and instruction creative. Exemplar units and straight textbook “canned” instruction are fine for the teacher to consult so as to get an idea of how effective lessons and units can unfold; just make sure that they do not become the basis of your regular lessons. Some teachers may try to ensure test score suc- cess by not straying from the approved lessons, but authentic learning is often messy and organic—and risky. Beware that computer-based instruction can also be overly scripted and become a crutch and distraction.

4. Do not take the Common Core’s rightful emphasis on text-based arguments too far.

  • Do not follow the Common Core’s philosophy that the only way that a student can demonstrate knowledge gleaned from a text is using evidence from the text to support their claim. While careful textual citations of evidence is key, the Standards say that “student knowledge drawn from the text is demonstrated when the student uses evidence from the text to support the claim about the text. Hence, evidence and knowledge link directly to the text.” However, in Catholic schools, knowledge is attained and demonstrated when the human intellect, informed by the senses, judges things rightly. Our criteria include not only the text itself but also a rich and wonderful world outside the text (which the text might brilliantly unveil—sometimes with life-changing effect). Evidence and knowledge are certainly based on the text; however, they are ultimately grounded in truth, beauty and goodness. If we miss this, we miss everything about Catholic education.
  • Allow discussion about outside texts or ideas. Do not discourage middle and high school students from also making extensive references to other works; historical, philosophical and religious trends; or their “gut responses.” Do, however, be sure to require rigorous scrutiny of their positions and gut responses and link those back to explicit under- standings and assumptions about the world as well as the topic under exploration.  Teach them to unpack their responses in clarity and truth—not to suppress them so as to simply stick to the world of the text or increase standardized test scores.
  • Conduct a little test preparation. Teach older students how to sanitize their normal “human” responses for the purposes of the standardized test evaluation.

5. Avoid premature use of technology, peer-editing, research and rhetorical pedagogy in place of good old-fashioned writing instruction.

  • Use pencil and paper when you teach writing to young children. Technology is only a teaching tool, not a magic smart pill. Using technology to write can wait. Do not panic that your elementary students will be “left behind” if you are still teaching them to handwrite. None of us over 40 had computers in school, but we have managed somehow to be smart, productive, technologically proficient 21st century learners. Technology is the easy part; thinking clearly and deeply is the hard part, and this can happen without extensive technology. We don’t know what type of technology our students will have at their disposal in 15 years, but we do know what type of brains they will have; we need to prepare those brains for maximum clarity and facility of thought.
  • Avoid the early emphasis on peer-editing (a teaching technique and not a standard) and the too early emphasis on research. The Common Core requires peer input and writing using a computer in 1st grade, and “research” with technology in 3rd grade. Younger children may not be ready to evaluate, process and synthesize another ’s work and insights and should focus on their own thinking and writing. It is easy to find out (or copy/plagiarize) what others think; it is harder to clarify your own thinking and find your own voice. Young students deserve adult guidance at this stage and not the faux guidance of their peers who cannot teach what they do not yet know.
  • Remember that the goal of writing is to communicate the truth. Writing should not be viewed simply through the Common Core lens of effective rhetoric, where students learn how to manipulate words and use standard grammar to produce a cogent, if not somewhat detached, argument.5  Writing should fundamentally be at the service of truth, beauty and goodness, and it should assist the student to articulate his or her understandings or insights based on penetration into reality.  Naturally, since it is also a social activity, writ- ing should follow conventions of grammar and reason in service of the truth and effective communication. In sum, writing is ordered toward an explanation of one’s encounter with truth, goodness and beauty, but it can still attend to some of the Common Core’s skill- based focus.

6. Create your own explicit standards for your junior high and high school literature classes.

  • List the critical texts, time periods, authors and genres that you expect your students to cover. The Common Core Standards only chunk and repeat the same empty skills year after year. While this provides some generic guidance, it does not account for adequate content coverage or skills development necessary for effective high school literature.

7. Do not alter your math progression.

  • Keep mastery of the standard algorithms using multi-digits at the levels they are currently found. Do not delay these for a year as suggested by the CCSS.  Keep addition/ subtraction in 2nd-3rd grade, multiplication in 4th, division in 5th.
  • Keep Algebra in 8th grade as the norm for your school. A non-algebra track for struggling students can also be offered for those who fall short of the norm.
  • Keep your geometry program unchanged. Do not follow the unorthodox and failed version presented in the Common Core.
  • Develop explicit standards for classes necessary for future science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) majors. There currently are no explicit standards for classes such as pre-calculus, trigonometry, statistics, number theory, calculus, etc.

8. Avoid the temptation to push “higher-ordered thinking skills” too quickly.

  • Give novices (that is, grade school students) the direct instruction that they need. Be extremely wary of Common Core “inspired” instruction that over-emphasizes or pushes higher-order thinking skills too far down into the younger grades, especially in math. This causes an unnecessary sense of confusion or failure, which can lead to frustration and dis- taste for math at an early age. Experts are the ones who benefit more from a constructivist/exploration-based environment, and properly educated high school students are typically entering this “expert” level of mathematical reasoning. Hours lost in prematurely forcing younger kids into expert/abstract  thinking not only leads to frustration and a loss of confidence, but also it comes at the cost of exposure to necessary basics that they will need to become authentic experts in the future.
  • Continue to emphasize memorization in the younger grades. This is the raw material upon which abstract reasoning will draw, as their intellects naturally and gradually mature and bloom.

9. Avoid teaching to the tests.

  • Focus on good instruction, not this or that test. This is your competitive advantage in a Common Core test crazy environment. Enjoy having more time and freedom to teach; your students will flourish more in the long run. Catholic schools know this from years of experience with not getting trapped into incessant state testing. Authentic tests will expose authentic learning: good instruction trumps unnecessary testing.
  • Do still give norm-referenced tests with post-Common Core validity such as the Iowa’s to assist with student formation.
  • Do plan for SAT/ACT testing courses to be formally placed in your high school curriculum. Teach students in a discreet course “how” to take a standardized test and respond to prompts in a Common Core expected manner.

10. Keep the greatest distance possible between your curriculum and the Common Core Standards.

  • Do not cheerlead for the Common Core. If you are using the standards, that is one thing; there are many usable parts. However, there are also many deep problems with them (perhaps as with any set of standards). When parts fail or weaknesses become evident, you do not want to be married to them.
  • Do not praise the Common Core: Let it sink or stand on its own without your prior validation. The Common Core Standards are untested. They claim to be more rigorous and focused than many state standards, but that claim is up for debate. What is not up for debate is the fact that states with “rigorous and focused” standards do not have higher test scores than states judged to have poor standards. There is no correlation between state standards and test scores, as strange as that seems.
  • If you use the Standards, set them as sub-floor but not as a foundation for your Catholic education. The Common Core Standards can possibly be a partial and lower (but not critical) part of your larger more lofty efforts at complete human formation.  Our foundation must always be Jesus Christ.
  • Interpret the Standards as loosely and broadly as possible. Do not attempt to tie daily instruction and lesson plans directly to the Common Core Standards as is required in many public schools. Nevertheless,  it is possible with creativity and a healthy skepticism of the philosophies animating the Common Core Standards to give many of them a distant nod. This means essentially saying, “Well yes, when I glance at the Common Core Standards every now and then, I can point to places somewhere not too far from our grade level curriculum where we pretty much do something like that.” In other words, this approach entails not being faithful to the intent and explicit wording of the Common Core, but just acknowledging them close enough to get by.
  • Normally such behavior is witnessed when conscientious objectors face the tyranny of an unjust law or authority, and this is better than faithfully instituting the flawed Common Core program; but again, why would Catholic schools, who are not required to teach to the Common Core, select this less than ideal approach?
  • We do after all owe it to the world to witness to the Truth about authentic education and about the human person. We also owe a duty to the majority of Catholic children who at- tended public schools to voice our opposition to the flawed program to which they are being subjected. Some public school supporters of the Common Core point to our schools and say, “See, if the Catholic schools are using it, it must be good!”

With so many concerns, one wonders why Catholic schools would base their efforts on the Common Core at all. Catholic schools have had unparalleled and enviable success for decades using their own standards.

I am concerned that many Catholic schools may have jumped on the Common Core band- wagon too early. After all, the Standards have not had adequate opportunity to be vetted; no “body” of Catholic scholars or educators—especially the parents, the primary educators—has thoroughly explored or discussed them. There is no harm in hitting the pause button and continuing the conversation, as we watch the untested Common Core Standards unfold in the public school arena.

Regardless, as some Catholic schools choose to adapt the Common Core, it would benefit us all to discuss openly what is being adapted and why. As with any initial conversation, these remarks and ideas cry out for correction and expansion. I look forward to the conversation.

* The title has changes from the original, “10 Minimal Adaptations Catholic Schools Consider Making to the Common Core State Standards”

A Mandate for Fidelity: Pope Benedict Urges Compliance with Theologian’s Mandatum


On May 5, 2012, in his address to several American bishops during their required ad limina visit to Rome, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI spoke on “religious education and the faith formation of the next generation of Catholics” in the United States.  He said:

On the level of higher education, many of you have pointed to a growing recognition on the part of Catholic colleges and universities of the need to reaffirm their distinctive identity in fidelity to their founding ideals and the Church’s mission in service of the Gospel.  Yet much remains to be done, especially in such areas as compliance with the mandate laid down in Canon 812 for those who teach theological disciplines.

The importance of this canonical norm as a tangible expression of ecclesial communion and solidarity in the Church’s educational apostolate becomes all the more evident when we consider the confusion created by instances of apparent dissidence between some representatives of Catholic institutions and the Church’s pastoral leadership: such discord harms the Church’s witness and, as experience has shown, can easily be exploited to compromise her authority and her freedom.1

Canon 812 of the Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law states, “Those who teach theological disciplines in any institutes of higher studies whatsoever must have a mandate from the competent ecclesiastical authority.”2

The U.S. bishops’ 2001 guidelines for implementing Canon 812 describe the mandate, commonly identified by the Latin mandatum, as “fundamentally an acknowledgment by Church authority that a Catholic professor of a theological discipline is teaching within the full communion of the Catholic Church.”  It recognizes “the professor’s commitment and responsibility to teach authentic Catholic doctrine and to refrain from putting forth as Catholic teaching anything contrary to the Church’s magisterium.”3  The mandatum is requested by the theologian in writing, and it is granted in writing by the local bishop who presides over the diocese where the theologian is employed.

The Holy Father’s new call for “compliance” with Canon 812 is something of a surprise for Americans.  The mandatum has not received significant attention here since the 1990s, when it was vigorously opposed by major theological associations and the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, defended by the U.S. bishops and organizations including The Cardinal Newman Society and the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, and widely debated in both Catholic and secular news media.  One reason the topic has received little attention in the past decade is because it is very difficult for Catholics to identify which theologians have received the mandatum; many Catholic colleges and universities refuse to reveal such information, even to students and their families.

Now despite the long silence—or perhaps because of it—Pope Benedict has expressed concern about the lack of compliance with Canon 812, giving the matter renewed importance.  Moreover, the Holy Father has declared that compliance with the mandatum is “especially” lacking in the work of Catholic colleges and universities to reaffirm their Catholic identity.  This appears to assign to the colleges and universities some responsibility for compliance with Canon 812.  In the United States, it is widely understood that it is the individual theologian’s responsibility to request the mandatum, drawing from the language of Canon 812.  But many Catholic colleges and universities reject corresponding responsibilities—drawing from the nature of Canon 812 as a statute in the Code’s section on Catholic institutes of higher learning—to employ only Catholic theology professors who receive the mandatum and to disclose to students and others which theology professors have the mandatum.

In response to the Holy Father’s renewed attention to the mandatum, The Cardinal Newman Society has prepared the following report to provide Catholic families a better understanding of the mandatum, identify concerns about compliance with Canon 812, and suggest responsibilities of Catholic colleges and universities.  We have invited several Church officials, college leaders, canon law experts, and theologians to contribute their insights. Quite appropriately, none of these wished to guess the personal concerns and intentions of the Holy Father, but they did identify serious compliance issues that may, we hope, find resolution in Catholic colleges and universities’ response to Pope Benedict’s charge.

Chief among those who responded to our queries is His Eminence Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura and Archbishop Emeritus of St. Louis.  He serves as the chief judge for the Vatican’s canon law courts and therefore has great influence on matters of canon law. Cardinal Burke is also a member of the Congregation for the Clergy and the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, and he is Ecclesiastical Advisor to The Cardinal Newman Society’s Center for the Advancement of Catholic Higher Education.

“The Holy Father only has a limited number of occasions during these ad limina visits to speak with bishops,” noted Cardinal Burke in his June 20th telephone interview with The Cardinal Newman Society, “and that he would devote one of the lengthier communications with the bishops to the subject [of the mandatum and Catholic higher education] certainly indicates to me that it is a serious concern on his part.”

His Excellency Bishop Joseph Martino, retired from the Diocese of Scranton and a long-time advisor to The Cardinal Newman Society, agrees that Pope Benedict’s address to the American bishops has real significance.

“The Pope does not bring up topics casually in his ad limina talks,” Bishop Martino told The Cardinal Newman Society.  “When all of the Pope’s talks to the U.S.A. bishops during their recent ad limina visits are analyzed, you have a summary of the Pope’s pastoral ‘worries’ about the Catholic Church in the U.S.A.”

Resistance to the Mandatum

Catholic identity in Catholic higher education has been a significant concern of both the Vatican and the U.S. bishops for at least three decades.  The mandatum is a key aspect of the Vatican’s response to secularization and theological dissent, and it is celebrated at several Catholic colleges and universities where theology professors are required to have the mandatum.  Many other institutions, however, have resisted the mandatum, claiming it is an infringement on academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

In 1983 His Holiness, Blessed Pope John Paul II approved the revised Code of Canon Law, which for the first time in Church history included a section governing “Catholic universities and other institutes of higher studies”—including the mandatum requirement for theologians.  But some American experts in canon law contended that the new section did not apply to most Catholic colleges and universities, because they are legally owned by trustees and not the Catholic Church.  As a result, the mandatum was largely ignored.

In 1990 Blessed John Paul II resolved the matter with the constitution for Catholic higher education, Ex corde Ecclesiae,4 which assumes canonical jurisdiction over any college or university that has an “institutional commitment” to Catholic education, regardless of legal control.  The constitution also insists on compliance with the mandatum.

Despite complaints from some theologians and academic societies, in 1999 the American bishops approved particular norms to implement Ex corde Ecclesiae in the United States,5 including the requirement that Catholic theology professors at Catholic colleges and universities obtain the mandatum.  In 2001 the bishops issued guidelines for compliance with the mandatum.6 And last year the bishops completed a nationwide review of colleges’ and universities’ progress toward complying with Ex corde Ecclesiae, including specific discussion of the mandatum.7

Nevertheless, a 2011 survey of U.S. Catholic college and university leaders revealed that serious concerns remain.  Forty-two percent of the respondents + Add New Issue said their institutions have neither a department nor a chair of Catholic theology as required by Ex corde Ecclesiae, and more than seven percent said that Catholic theology is not even taught in their institutions.  More than a third (36 percent) said they did not know whether their theology professors have received the mandatum, 10 percent said some but not all of their theologians have received it, and another 6 percent said no professors have it.8

In June and July 2012, The Cardinal Newman Society contacted the public relations offices of the ten largest Catholic universities in America, ranked by their undergraduate student enrollment.  We asked them to identify theology professors who have received the mandatum.

Only three of the ten universities replied by our deadline, and none provided the requested information.  DePaul University spokesman John Holden wrote, “I believe this question misunderstands the mandatum process developed by the bishops.  Faculty request the mandatum directly from the local ordinary.  A university would not generally have this information.”

Father James Fitz, SM, vice president for mission and rector of the University of Dayton, reported likewise that the University views the mandatum “as a personal relationship between the theologian and the archbishop. …Therefore, the University does not have a list of those who have received the mandatum, nor does the University publish such a list.”

Marquette University spokeswoman Kate Venne explained that the mandatum is an obligation of the theologian, not the university, and information about who has the mandatum “is not something that is shared with the university or a department chair.”

The remaining seven large universities did not respond at all to our request: Boston College, Fordham University, Georgetown University, Loyola University Chicago, St. John’s University in New York, Saint Louis University, and the University of Notre Dame.

By contrast, other Catholic colleges and universities—including several that are recommended in The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College9—have taken a much different approach to the mandatum.  They see it as an institutional obligation to ensure that theology faculty have the mandatum, and they offer full disclosure to students and others.

In June and July 2012, The Cardinal Newman Society requested and received confirmation that all theology faculty have the mandatum at Aquinas College in Tennessee, Ave Maria University, Belmont Abbey College, Benedictine College, the College of Saint Mary Magdalen, DeSales University, Franciscan University of Steubenville, John Paul the Great Catholic University, Mount St. Mary’s University, St. Gregory’s University, Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, the University of St. Thomas in Texas, and Wyoming Catholic College.  At The Catholic University of America, where the theology and religious studies department is a pontifical faculty, all professors have the similar missio canonica from the Archbishop of Washington.

The Mandatum and Catholic Higher Education

Pope Benedict’s May 5th address to U.S. bishops considers a key question: Is the mandatum only a theologian’s private, individual commitment of fidelity to the Church, or does it also have significance for a college or university’s Catholic identity?  The Holy Father appears to confirm the latter.

Cardinal Burke reflected on Pope Benedict’s address in his interview with The Cardinal Newman Society.  In that address, says Cardinal Burke, the Holy Father “mentions that some important efforts have been made, but that much remains to be done in terms of the Catholic identity of the Catholic colleges and universities, and then he cites specifically the implementation of Canon 812—namely that those who are teaching the theological disciplines in the Catholic university should have certification that they are teaching in communion with the Magisterium, the official teaching of the Church.”

So how is the mandatum important to the Catholic university?  Cardinal Burke continues:

Well, it is the truth of the faith which is the highest goal of a Catholic education.  Everything that a Catholic student studies at a university or college is directed ultimately to a knowledge of God and His plan for our world and for us.

And so everything that is taught at a Catholic university must relate in some way to this—what we might call this wisdom, this knowledge of God and of His plan for us.  And it’s the professors of theology at the university who teach that highest form of learning, that learning towards which every other form of learning is directed at the university.  And for that reason, of course, the Church wants to be sure that those who are teaching theology are sound and clear in their teaching.

…This is even more critical in our time in which we are living with a secularized culture, where there is so much confusion and error about the truth about ourselves, about our world, and the truth about God.  So the Church is being particularly attentive that those who teach Catholic theology are indeed teaching in communion with the Magisterium.

The secularism in society, the errors which we find so commonly in many sectors of society, has its influence also on the Church.  The Church must take her own prudent and necessary measures to make sure that error doesn’t enter in to the university level of the Catholic college where young people—and older people—are coming with the idea of obtaining a solid education to equip them for a lifetime of good and upright living.  And that depends very much on the received theological education.

There are several indications that the Church regards compliance with the mandatum as integral to Catholic higher education.  Most apparently, Canon 812 is situated in the section of the Code of Canon Law for Catholic universities.  It was Ex corde Ecclesiae, the apostolic constitution on Catholic universities and not a document focused on theologians, that forced compliance with the mandatum seven years after Canon 812 had been published.  The mandatum is a requirement of the U.S. bishops’ “Application of Ex corde Ecclesiae,” and it was a topic of the bishops’ review last year of the implementation of Ex corde Ecclesiae.

Asked for some insight into why Canon 812 would be situated in the Code’s section on Catholic higher education, Cardinal Burke again reiterated the Church’s great need for education that is faithful and authentic, which the mandatum helps ensure:

The Catholic university—and this is stated in a wonderful way in Ex corde Ecclesiae—provides a distinctive service in society of preparing young people, or even older people, in the various arts and sciences with a solid, Catholic foundation to their knowledge, earlier referred to as knowledge of God as He has revealed Himself to us in the Church.

And so the Church has always viewed the Catholic universities and Catholic colleges as a most important means of carrying out the work of evangelization.  In other words, at the highest levels of the pursuit of knowledge there would be this fundamental obedience to the Word of God as spoken to us in our own hearts, in natural moral law and our consciences, and through the divine revelation, the Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church.

This is the great gift of the Catholic universities.  They should be in our society leaders and powerful forces for the New Evangelization, for the teaching, celebration, and the goodness of the Catholic faith with a new enthusiasm and a new engagement.

Public Disclosure of the Mandatum

In his May 5th address, Pope Benedict describes the mandatum as “a tangible expression of ecclesial communion and solidarity in the Church’s educational apostolate.”  The Cardinal Newman Society asked Cardinal Burke to explain how the mandatum is “tangible”:

It’s tangible in the sense that it’s a public declaration, in writing, on the part of the ecclesiastical authority that a theologian is teaching in communion with the Church, and people have a right to know that so that if you, for instance, are at a Catholic university or parents are sending their children to the Catholic university, they know that the professors who are teaching theological disciplines at the university are teaching in communion with the Church. They are assured in that by the public declaration of the diocesan bishop.

The mandatum, then, is by its nature a public act.  “The fact that I teach in accord with the Magisterium is a public factor,” says Cardinal Burke.  “That’s not some private, secret thing between myself and the Lord.”

Moreover, says Cardinal Burke, it’s the right of Catholic students and their families to know who has the mandatum:

Ultimately, the mandatum gives that assurance to students that, if they enroll in a given college or university, they can count upon receiving a solid education in Catholic theology. And that’s important, especially in an age in which there is so much confusion, even within the Church, with regard to teaching and discipline.

And so that is certainly a prime purpose of the mandatum, securing and ensuring the Catholic identity of a university, but at the same time, and inseparably from that, guaranteeing to the students and to all those who may be helping them to have a Catholic education that indeed the teaching of the faith which they will receive, and in those disciplines related to the faith, that the university is truly Catholic.

While all of this may come as a surprise to Americans whose experience of the mandatum has been as an entirely private matter between a bishop and a theologian, this is not the first time the Vatican has indicated the public nature of the mandatum.  Blessed Pope John Paul II, speaking to American bishops in 2004 during their ad limina visit to Rome, said: “Catholic colleges and universities are called to offer an institutional witness of fidelity to Christ and to His word as it comes to us from the Church, a public witness expressed in the canonical requirement of the mandatum.”10

In 2007 Archbishop Michael Miller, CSB, then-secretary to the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, defended the rights of Catholic families in an address to Catholic college leaders gathered at the Franciscan University of Steubenville:

The Catholic faithful—both parents and students—have a right to the assurance, when choosing a university or a specific course, that those teaching theology are in full communion with the Church.  While no law obliges the university to make known those who have the mandatum, and many Catholic universities prefer it that way, such silence frustrates the purpose of the law and deprives the faithful of their right to assurance about the doctrinal soundness of a given professor.11

Contrary to the American approach to the mandatum, Archbishop Miller recommended that Catholic colleges and universities assess their Catholic identity with the question, “Does the university have a procedure in place which will guarantee that the mandatum fills its purpose?”

The Cardinal Newman Society asked the opinion of Father Thomas Weinandy, OFM Cap., executive director of the Secretariat for Doctrine and Pastoral Practices of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.  He says that theologians ought to be proud of receiving the mandatum, which is an honor “recognizing that theologians have a true vocation in the Church.”

I wouldn’t know why you wouldn’t want it to be public.  The whole point is public recognition that somebody is truly a Catholic theologian.  I don’t know why you would want to keep that hidden when the Church is bestowing the mandatum to recognize that somebody is truly a Catholic theologian.

Canon law counselor Robert Flummerfelt suggests that theologians prominently display the mandatum in their offices “in the same way that attorneys and professors hang their academic degrees, professional licenses, bar admissions, etc., in their offices for clients and students to see.”  He adds that colleges and universities should identify professors with the mandatum “in literature and on the institution’s web site.”

Father James Conn, SJ, a canon law scholar at the Gregorian in Rome, has studied the mandatum extensively and has both written and given lectures to bishops and canonists on the subject.  Currently a visiting professor at Boston College, Father Conn tells The Cardinal Newman Society that the mandatum’s purpose “is to declare that the teacher of theology is carrying out his function in communion with the teaching authority of the Church.”  He adds:

The mandate is important because it gives assurance of doctrinal integrity in circumstances in which the faithful have a reasonable expectation of it.  It guarantees, as it were, truth in advertising, even when the advertising is only implicit.

In view of what is asserted above, it is of course to be made public.  The norm otherwise makes no sense.

Monsignor Stuart Swetland, director of The Cardinal Newman Society’s Center for the Advancement of Catholic Higher Education and vice president for Catholic mission at Mount St. Mary’s University, makes an interesting comparison to other public acts that involve private commitments:

You can’t get any more private than the act of marriage in one sense, but it’s almost always a public act.  In the rarest cases of persecution or legal issues, you could have a secret marriage.  The exception proves the rule that marriage is a public act.

Monsignor Swetland describes the mandatum as “an act of being in communion with the Church, a sign a professor who teaches theology is teaching in full communion with the Church.” Therefore, he argues, “It’s a counter sign to talk of something as building up the communion of the Church and then to keep it private.  Communion is by its very nature for the community.  To privatize something that is required seems to me to run counter to its purpose.”

But as for who is responsible for publicly disclosing recipients of the mandatum, canon law provides no clear answer.  Cardinal Burke suggests:

With regard to who makes it public, I suspect that there could be a number of ways of doing that. The bishop, simply, when he gives the mandate, he could make that public in various ways, in the diocesan organs of communication and so forth because it is a public fact—that this is not some kind of secret thing where people don’t know, “Do you have the mandate or don’t you?”

So the bishop could make it known, and certainly I believe that there are Catholic universities which state publicly all of the professors in Catholic theology and the related disciplines at our university have the mandate, and a university would want to make that known for the sake of its own public integrity and also to reassure the students and parents and others who will be concerned.

And also, too, if I were teaching Catholic theology in a Catholic university or college or in a chair of Catholic theology, I would want people to know that I was doing so with a mandate from the diocesan bishop that certifies that my teaching is in communion with the Catholic faith.

Father Conn has similar thoughts:

Perhaps the theologian should make it public that a mandatum has been granted, though it is not clear what means should be used.  Since the university is asserting its Catholic character, it is perhaps its responsibility to make the information public.  Failing that, or for other reasons, the responsibility would fall upon the bishop.

Archbishop Elden Curtiss, retired from the Archdiocese of Omaha, told The Cardinal Newman Society that he believes it is “primarily” the responsibility of the bishop to release names: “The bishop should make it public because he’s saying to the people, ‘This is a reliable source of Catholic theology.’”

It was in 2001, when the U.S. bishops approved their mandatum guidelines, that Archbishop Curtiss first advocated publicly disclosing recipients of the mandatum.  He later told theologians in his archdiocese that if they refused the mandatum, he would release their names.

Bishop Martino would place the responsibility for disclosure on the college or university:

The college should display its communion with the Bishop by being the appropriate entity to publish the names of those college professors with or without the mandatum.  In the absence of the local college’s fulfillment of this act of ecclesial communion, the Bishop should publish the names and keep them published and updated, for example, on a diocesan website, for future inquirers.

The Mandatum in Faculty Hiring

Aside from disclosing whether professors have obtained the mandatum, is a Catholic college or university obligated to ensure that its professors have complied with Canon 812?

The common assumption in the United States has been that because Canon 812 makes reference only to the individual theologian—“Those who teach theological disciplines in any institutes of higher studies whatsoever must have a mandate from the competent ecclesiastical authority”—a college or university need not, and perhaps even should not, assume any responsibilities regarding the mandatum.

Indeed, the U.S. bishops’ 2001 guidelines declare, “The mandatum is an obligation of the professor, not of the university.”  But while this fact seems to be universally accepted with regard to the act of requesting the mandatum from the local bishop—much as an individual in any profession would be responsible for obtaining appropriate certification—it seems clear that Catholic colleges and universities have responsibilities of their own.

The same 2001 guidelines, for instance, prescribe that if a new Catholic theology professor does not obtain the mandatum within the academic year or six months, whichever is longer, the bishop is to notify the college or university.  Why notify the institution if it is not expected to make use of the information—or if it is not, as some universities argue, appropriate even to monitor which theology professors have received the mandatum?

Canon law experts tell The Cardinal Newman Society that Catholic colleges and universities have a certain obligation to monitor which professors have the mandatum… and more.  Father Conn, for instance, argues it would be “inconsistent for Catholic universities to hire Catholic theologians who do not have a mandatum.”

Cardinal Burke likewise says that only theology professors with the mandatum should be employed at a Catholic institution:

…[T]he Catholic university will want that all its teachers of theology or the theological disciplines have a mandate and will not, of course, retain the professor in teaching Catholic theology or the theological disciplines who does not have a mandate, because to do so would be to call into question the whole raison d’etre of the university.  If a Catholic university doesn’t distinguish itself for its care, that those who are teaching theology and the other theological disciplines are doing so in communion with the Magisterium, what reason does it have to exist?

“If a Catholic university or college has been given the title Catholic (Canon 808),” says canon law advisor Robert Flummerfelt, “then it is the obligation of that Catholic institution to employ individuals teaching in the theological disciplines to promote Catholic thought completely faithful to the teaching authority of the Church.”

Choosing theology professors who have the mandatum is “an additional sign of the commitment that the Catholic university has to promote and teach the Catholic faith authentically,” Flummerfelt says.

Here Canon 812 intersects with Canon 810, which describes a Catholic college or university’s obligations with regard to employing professors in all disciplines:

It is the responsibility of the authority who is competent in accord with the statutes to provide for the appointment of teachers to Catholic universities who, besides their scientific and pedagogical suitability, are also outstanding in their integrity of doctrine and probity of life; when those requisite qualities are lacking they are to be removed from their positions in accord with the procedure set forth in the statutes.

Archbishop Curtiss sees it as a matter of truth in advertising: “If a Catholic purports to be teaching Catholic theology, then he needs a mandatum.”  On the other hand, “if he’s teaching some other kind of theology, then say so.”

Properly labeling professors and their courses, by clearly identifying what is authentic Catholic theology and what is not, would seem a related responsibility of the Catholic college or university.

The Mandatum and Non-Catholic Institutions

What about non-Catholic colleges and universities that employ Catholic theologians—does the mandatum apply only at Catholic institutions?  The U.S. bishops’ 2001 guidelines for the mandatum concern only “Catholics who teach theological disciplines in a Catholic university,” and the mandatum is most often associated with Ex corde Ecclesiae and the renewal of Catholic identity in Catholic institutions.

But interestingly, Cardinal Burke tells The Cardinal Newman Society that he believes Canon 812 can be applied to theology professors at state, secular, and other religious colleges and universities as well:

My interpretation of the canon is that it applies to anyone who teaches in a public and formal way Catholic theology, in other words also someone who would hold a chair of Catholic theology in another institute.

In other words, let’s say that at some secular university a chair is founded of Catholic theology and the person who is teaching it publicly claims to be teaching Catholic theology, then it seems to me that that person needs a mandate, in other words needs certification on the part of the competent ecclesiastical authority, which would normally be the diocesan bishop, that he or she is teaching in communion with the Magisterium.  Otherwise, you could end up in a situation where you’d have someone who holds a chair in Catholic theology who is teaching something that is contrary to the Catholic faith or even inimical to it.

Rescuing Theology

The Cardinal Newman Society interviewed several theology professors at Catholic institutions who responded favorably to Pope Benedict’s May 5th address.  They indicate that in addition to protecting students from dissident professors, a renewed emphasis on the mandatum could improve theology departments at Catholic colleges and universities—but while the mandatum will help, much more needs to happen.

“The mandatum is important, but it has been pretty much disregarded in this country,” laments Father Edward O’Connor, CSC, theology professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame.  “Theologians don’t like to have anybody looking over their shoulders.  I thought it was absolutely wrong that the mandatum was disregarded.  We’ve got a lot of theologians in Catholic colleges who are not really Catholic.”

That, says Ave Maria University theology chairman and former Boston College theologian Father Matthew Lamb, is a problem with serious consequences:

Many of the pastoral problems bishops face find their roots in the failure of proper formation and education of the priests, religious, seminarians, and faithful in their dioceses as dissent spreads from theologians to the mass media and beyond.  The recent sexual abuse scandals that have damaged so many sprang from failures in moral and theological formation and proper oversight.  Those theologians now rejecting Magisterial teachings on the immorality of contraception, of abortion, of homosexual acts, and of euthanasia, as well as those rejecting Magisterial teachings on marriage, priesthood, and sacramental practice, are sowing the seeds of further scandals.

Father Lamb believes that “students, as well as their families,” should be told who has the mandatum, and Catholic institutions should not hire theologians without it.  University of Scranton theologian Brian Benestad agrees, noting that strict employment policies are “especially important today since the defense of dissent by Catholic theologians seems to be the rule rather than the exception.”

It’s a matter of justice, says University of Dallas theologian Christopher Malloy:

Let us not forget that who most need protection in the true faith are the poor.  The poor catechetically are those who want catechetical formation.  We must protect and nurture these souls.  Salvation is at stake, and purgatory is no cup of tea.  Theologians who complain about their “rights” are forgetting that we are servants of Jesus Christ, and He came to feed the poor.

Any theologian who is unwilling to request the mandatum is “a bad Catholic theologian,” says Larry Chapp, professor of theology and former department chairman at DeSales University.  That’s because “theology must focus on the ecclesial context of how Revelation is mediated to us, and that necessarily implies respect” for the Magisterium.

But Malloy adds:

Orthodoxy is the absolute minimum requirement of authentic theology.  It is by no means a maximal requirement.  This means that whoever is not orthodox is not fit to be a theologian.  However, being orthodox does not make one a theologian, much less a good theologian. …Parents and students should use their nose in discerning whether or not a theologian is truly orthodox, who loves Jesus and the one Church that Jesus founded.  It may be that a mandatum is issued, and yet a theologian is playing fast and loose with the magisterial teaching, especially in ways that most students are not able to detect but that have real, deleterious effects.

Mark Lowery, also a theology professor at the University of Dallas, worries that “some heterodox theologians who are angry about the mandatum might go ahead and sign it disingenuously.”  For this, he proposes a solution:

The department of theology should have a regular presence on campus through talks (with responses), symposia on current topics, and the like.  The student body should have fairly regular chances to see how their theologians’ minds tick.  That strategy goes a long way in discovering what a signature on a mandatum really means.

Ultimately the mandatum is one tool toward the larger goal of promoting fidelity in Catholic theology and, more broadly, throughout Catholic higher education.  Loyola University Chicago theologian Dennis Martin explains that the value of the mandatum is in shining a light on a discipline that needs to regain the trust of Catholic families:

[T]he mandatum puts the theologian on notice, makes him accountable when he’s tempted to disagree.  It does not mean that the bishop approves of everything that theologian has written or will write or has said or will say in class.  What it does is put the burden of conscience onto the theologian, first, to present the faith accurately and then, if he disagrees with it, to deal with that unfaithfulness in his conscience and acknowledge it to himself and students.  No person of integrity will do that for very long.

The several theologians, bishops and canon law experts interviewed by The Cardinal Newman Society seem to agree that by ensuring compliance with Canon 812—not only compliance by individual theologians seeking the mandatum, but also colleges and universities eager to ensure that students receive theological instruction from professors who have the mandatum—Catholic colleges and universities can significantly strengthen their Catholic identity.

As expressed in Ex corde Ecclesiae, preserving Catholic identity requires hiring professors “who are both willing and able to promote that identity.  The identity of a Catholic University is essentially linked to the quality of its teachers and to respect for Catholic doctrine.”  For this reason, the mandatum is crucial to the integrity of a college or university as Catholic.