Not long before the launch of The Cardinal Newman Society in 1993, an elderly priest advised me to stop trying to rescue Catholic education. “You’re chasing the horses 20 years after the barn doors were opened,” he said.
I suppose he had reason for doubt. In the span of just two decades, his generation witnessed the tragic secularization of many Catholic colleges, the abdication of nuns from Catholic schools, and the rapid decline of parish school enrollment. Now, three decades later, many more Catholic schools have closed their doors, and enrollment has dropped steadily—at least until the recent post-pandemic bump.
Despite all this, never has The Cardinal Newman Society wavered from our mission to promote and defend faithful Catholic education. And while the tide of secularism in America is still very strong, never have I been more certain of the reform and renewal of Catholic education and of God’s blessings upon it!
Today we rejoice in a new generation of fruitful, authentic Catholic educators who are determined to build up faithful Catholic education. Colleges established and reformed in recent decades have become top choices for families seeking truly faithful Catholic education, thanks in part to the success of our Newman Guide programs. There is a growing number of exemplary Catholic schools and graduate programs, now also invited to enjoy Newman Guide recognition and promotion. And we celebrate the growth and maturation of Catholic homeschool and hybrid programs, forming outstanding scholars, leaders, priests, and sisters.
After 30 years of grateful toil in this work of fighting off secularism—the same work that our patron, Saint John Henry Newman, said was his primary mission more than a century ago—I have no more wisdom to offer than what Newman preached: education begins and ends in God. And as for the future of Catholic education and the success of our mission, we follow the example of Newman who asked only for the light of the Holy Spirit to see his next step. We, too, have only to seek and trust in the goodness of each step that we take. That blind trust served CNS well these last three decades.
Therefore, I won’t even try to predict the future of Catholic education—but we can pray for its revival, by God’s grace. And with each step forward, it helps to keep in mind the five broad objectives below, toward which there is much to be accomplished. The Cardinal Newman Society strives for advancement in each of these areas, and we are grateful to be accompanied by an ever-growing number of educators and partner organizations making important contributions toward faithful education.
The mission of Catholic education and the vision articulated by the Church must be renewed in the hearts, minds, and wills of Catholic education leaders and teachers.
In too many schools and colleges, the very foundation of Catholic education has been forgotten or willfully neglected. The differences between secular and Catholic education are not minor—they are fundamental and are of great consequence to students. A secular education focuses on empowerment, helping students accumulate information and develop skills in order to achieve their intellectual and physical potential. But Catholic education has a higher priority: to know and love God in pursuit of communion with Him, which is the final and proper end of a fully human life. More than the accumulation of knowledge, the student discerns some portion of the wisdom of God, and this requires His grace bestowed through prayer and sacrament with Jesus Christ as the perfect teacher.
If Catholic education is to be revived—if Catholic parents are to once again choose education that helps fulfill their sacred responsibility to form their children in faith, virtue, and wisdom—then it begins with a renewed awareness and appreciation for the vision articulated in Vatican documents. After several months of studying magisterial guidance from the last century, The Cardinal Newman Society distilled the key points into our five Principles of Catholic Identity in Education. These can be viewed as a further development of the five “marks” of Catholic education proposed by Archbishop Michael Miller, CSB, which rely on the same Vatican sources.
Every Catholic educator should be familiar with the distinctive and superior elements of Catholic education, especially given the widespread secularism and confusion in society and even within the Church today.
The integrity of Catholic education needs to be restored, beginning with an understanding of the integrity of the human person. As St. John Henry Newman explains, students come to class with all their emotions, appetites, will, and reason “warring” inside of them, because of the Fall. But it is the task of Catholic education “to reunite what has been put asunder.” Catholic education forms the intellect, but it does so in harmony with the rest of the soul and body—a truly integral formation of the person, ordered toward communion with God.
Within academics, there is also an integration that is necessary to Catholic education. If all knowledge and wisdom come from the mind of God, the one source of all, then the various disciplines have one foundation and should share insights, values, and methods across the curriculum. This is especially true of the Catholic faith, which is not simply infused into the classroom but provides the foundation and principles for every study.
In other activities, there can be no contradiction between learning and behavior, especially by the witness of teachers and other staff. Upholding moral expectations across all employees is increasingly difficult as even Catholics embrace ideologies and cultural norms that oppose Catholic teaching. But the integrity of Catholic education demands such integrity of every adult whose witness is seen by students.
To ensure the integrity of Catholic education, it must be defended. The threats to faithful Catholic education are numerous, beginning with the lack of awareness among many educators of the distinct mission of Catholic education. Especially in colleges, students are sometimes misled by dissent and even scandal while living in an often toxic campus culture. Also, as noted above, false ideologies and cultural norms in American society today—most notably gender ideology and distortions of marriage and sexuality—have great influence over students, parents, and Catholic school and college employees. Activists, legislators, courts, athletic associations, accreditors, and others are trying to force these new norms on Catholic educators, disregarding their religious beliefs and obligations.
At CNS, we are working hard to help Catholic educators secure the greatest protection under the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom. In addition to filing amicus briefs and communicating with government officials on behalf of Catholic families and educators, we provide standards and sample policies to help schools and colleges institute policies that are explicitly rooted in Catholic teaching, clear to all students and employees, and consistently upheld. The more forthright educators are about their Catholic mission and what is expected of all students and employees, the more likely an institution’s religious freedom is respected by the courts.
It may be that many Catholic schools and especially colleges have been too far afield, for too long a time, to expect a complete return to faithful Catholic education. But still there is a need for continued efforts at reform, if only to declare the principle that falsehood, dissent, and scandal have no place in authentic Catholic education.
Here we see the importance of developing a truly Catholic understanding of academic freedom. The Church does not accept the liberal view of human dignity as rooted in man’s reason and free will alone, thus recommending the widest possible freedom without regard for truth. Human dignity is bestowed by our Creator in His gracious desire that we be in communion with Him, and our reason and free will are ordered toward that purpose. Catholic education should allow students and teachers great freedom in exploring and contemplating reality, because reason requires a certain freedom to work on knowledge. But Catholic education must reject notions of absolute freedom, embrace truth, and avoid leading students into falsehood or sin.
Finally, the reform and renewal of faithful Catholic education require a recommitment by the Church to the project of education. In my conversations with bishops and priests, I often hear a tone of resignation, as if the days of Catholic education are behind us and can never be recovered. Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict paced a very high priority on faithful Catholic education, and that sense of urgency and commitment needs to persist in American dioceses and homes.
Millions of dollars and work hours have been put into the “New Evangelization’ with mixed results, but always falling short of true formation of young people. Catholic formation requires time and the integration described above, and this simply cannot be done well in the context of scattered events built around a public education. Today public schools and universities often strive to form students in ways that are contradictory to a Catholic morality and worldview. We must again appreciate Catholic education as the Church’s primary and most effective means of evangelization, while being frank about the great dangers in public education.
This recommitment needs to happen, most importantly, among parents. They are the primary educators who choose the education for their children, and they witness to Catholic education by their own lifelong pursuit of Catholic formation and growing in knowledge and wisdom. At baptism, parents vow to raise their children in the Catholic faith. As St. John Henry Newman declared often, a private religion without relevance to activities outside of church is dead; and an education disregarding the fundamental insights of the Catholic faith is a poor education.
Is it too tall an order to ask for reform and renewal, integration and protection, with the full commitment of the Church? Can we recover the urgency of Archbishop John Hughes of New York, who insisted on building schools before completing parish church buildings?
With God’s grace, I do believe all this can come to pass—and we are seeing many exciting signs and examples of it all around the U.S. We go forward into the next decade, taking each step with bold confidence that God will do what He wills with our work. I look back on The Cardinal Newman Society’s 30 years with amazement and praise for what has been wrought from our faulty efforts, and that gives me the greatest hope for the future of Catholic education.
president and founder of
The Cardinal Newman Society