As a fellow Catholic educator (a veteran theology teacher at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Maryland), as well as a periodic contributor to the National Catholic Educational Association’s blog NCEATalk, I recently had the opportunity to independently interview famed Catholic personality Jonathan Doyle, in the midst of his busy schedule. Doyle is a native of Australia, has spoken globally regarding focusing on the foundations of Catholic education, and is the founder of the internationally popular web-based program Going Deeper: Online Formation for Catholic Teachers. For this interview, I asked Doyle some questions about his Catholic faith, Catholic education broadly, and how those entrusted with passing along the Good News of Jesus Christ in an instructional (particularly catechetical) setting can have hope in the future. Due to my family commitments, I was unfortunately unable to be in attendance at the NCEA’s Convention and Expo 2017 in Saint Louis, Missouri, April 17-20, to hear Jonathan Doyle’s keynote address, “Finding Purpose in the Education Vocation.” Nevertheless, I have been inspired and enthused by Doyle’s words here, and hope that you will be as well.
McClain: What role does the Catholic faith play in you and your family’s life?
Doyle: It is the basis of all we do and value as a family. We fail and get it wrong a lot of the time, but it is the center of our lives.
McClain: What is your teaching experience in the field of Catholic education?
Doyle: I taught for several years in Catholic high schools before completing post-graduate studies in education and theology, and then we founded our own business working in the area.
McClain: What makes Catholic education different from other educational settings?
Doyle: A Catholic school can do three key things that other schools can’t:
- It can focus upon presenting Jesus Christ in a compelling way to young people, so that they want to be in relationships with him and his Church for the rest of their lives. A Catholic school must be essentially a missionary arm of the Church where Christ is central.
- It educates the whole person. This is referred to in Church documents as “integral formation,” and is explained like this: “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” (Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, “Lay Catholics in Schools: Witnesses to Faith” , 17).
- A great Catholic school will have a rock-solid philosophical anthropology. This is simply a clear and consistent focus upon the value and dignity of the human person made in the image and likeness of God. This deep attitude affects all aspects of school life. It affects how teachers treat students and how teachers treat other teachers. It shapes the whole experience of the school community.
McClain: What is your perception of how Catholic schools operate in Australia, as compared to the United States and other areas of the world that you have visited?
Doyle: It’s complex. In Australia, our schools are massively government-funded. In the United States, the lack of government funding makes things much harder on one level, but it also seems to make your schools more committed to and passionate about their Catholic identity. I often say to American teachers that you should be careful what you wish for. When you have to really survive because of your Catholic identity, that can be a good thing. I find in the United States an energy and positivity that is missing in most other countries. I feel I belong here.
McClain: The topic for your keynote address at NCEA 2017 is “Finding Purpose in the Education Vocation.” In light of teaching in a Catholic school being a vocation, what are some gifts that all Catholic school teachers should possess?
Doyle: The Holy Spirit is awesome and gives all of us different talents and gifts. Some teachers can be funny, warm, and deeply pastoral; some may be more serious, but deeply committed to their subject areas and in seeing young people flourish. God loves variety, so every teacher brings something unique. However, at the macro level, to become a great Catholic teacher requires a deep love for Jesus and a desire for him to be the very center of life. A relationship with Jesus will eventually shape all other aspects of his or her teaching practice. Therefore, it’s the one essential thing.
McClain: What does it mean for Catholic schools to be centered on the Gospel – the Good News of Jesus Christ?
Doyle: It means they are doing exactly what they are meant to do. There is no other focus. So many schools in many countries have become factories for the college system. They fear enrollment decline, so they assume they are some kind of business that has to impress parents with high-grade scores. Once you go there, it’s over. The irony is that a deeply Christ-centered school ends up being a place of excellence anyway, because it is driven by a love for Christ and a deep desire to serve young people. The Catholic Church does not have a mission; she is a mission. Catholic schools are not some satellite business of the Catholic Church – they are part of the only mission that the Church has, which is to bring people home to the Father. My life’s work is simply to help schools find the courage to become what they truly are meant to become. Once Jesus is the center, the rest of it works out.
McClain: What is Catholic identity, and what does it mean to you?
Doyle: To be Catholic is to hold as true all that the Church proposes for us to believe. As Cardinal Newman said in his 1865 poem “The Dream of Gerontius”: “And I hold in veneration, for the love of him alone, holy Church as his creation, and her teachings are his own.” I also like Chesterton’s concept of “the democracy of the dead,” from the fourth chapter of his 1908 book Orthodoxy: “Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.” I love the tradition of the Church, her saints, and the incredible men and women who have served, suffered, and died with her throughout the ages. I love the mass and the beauty of the sacraments, and I love how she survives through the ages, always outlasting her many opponents.
McClain: The last three popes (Saint John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis) have dedicated a great deal of their respective pontificates to countering the vast secularization that has increasingly overwhelmed various facets of Western society. In the midst of this barren worldliness, how does an institution’s strong Catholic identity serve as a haven for students who are longing for the true hope and peace that Christ alone brings?
Doyle: I’ve been travelling heavily this year in the Middle East, Europe, and the United States. What I have begun to notice is that secularization essentially atomizes faith. When you live in a secular world, there are so few reminders of your faith that it struggles to survive. It’s like a flower being overwhelmed by smog or a cloud; it can’t thrive. This is just the impact of an immersion in a consumerist, secular world. I am not even referring to the more aggressive and militant forms of anti-Christian bias we are seeing more often. First, I am not advocating a return to the caves. Modernity and technology have many wonderful aspects, but by their nature they obscure the transcendent. What’s required is a more rigorous practice of the faith. We need to be more conscious and deliberate and actually practicing our Catholic faith. I am a road cyclist at a pretty high level. I do a huge amount of training – I practice a lot, because it matters to me. My Catholic faith is vastly more important, so I make a huge effort to practice it every day. It’s a very simple truth, but many people are missing it. They think being Catholic at this moment in history is maybe turning up to the occasional mass and ticking the religious affiliation box on a survey. We need to seek Christ more passionately in the heart of his Church. One of the crucial things a Catholic school can do is to become a center of truth, beauty, and goodness. These are what we refer to as the transcendentals. In a secular culture, we need to give young people real encounters with the sublime, the beautiful, and the holy. For years, we tried to make the mass “relevant” for young people… and look at the exodus. I teach people that you need to stop trying to be one more entertainment option in the most entertained culture in world history. Let the beauty of the liturgy speak. Let the beauty of our best churches speak. Give students encounters with silence, prayer, the sacraments, and Eucharistic adoration. This requires partnerships with good priests, but it can happen.
McClain: What is your favorite scriptural passage, and why?
Doyle: John 15:5 – “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” For me, there is no greater verse. It utterly captures the truth of what I have learned in my own life, and what I am trying to teach as many Catholic school educators as I can.
McClain: Do you have any additional words of encouragement for the extensive Catholic school community in the United States in the midst of your appearance at the NCEA Conference in Saint Louis, April 17-20, 2017?
Doyle: My one great mantra is always this: “You cannot do a supernatural task with only natural resources.” The fundamental mistake in Catholic schools is to drift from Christology into some form of neo-Pelagian humanism. We cannot simply try harder and work our way out of this. We need to truly seek the real and living and risen Lord Jesus Christ. He has all the power we need to transform our schools. I recently read Archbishop Chaput’s latest book [Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World], and he makes a point that I teach everywhere I go – it’s simply that what we really need is saints. It’s only, always, and ever been the case that saints transform the Church and the world. In my keynote, I will be sharing that message. My prayer for the wonderful, committed Catholic educators in this country is that they would seek to become saints and allow God to transform their ministry. Teachers are special. May God bless them all.