What’s Wrong With Our Catholic Schools

I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; lo, I have not restrained my lips, as thou knowest, O LORD.  (Psalms 40:9)

Let the children come to me; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. (Mark 10:14)

Some years back I joined a committee formed to save our local Catholic elementary school. Our school suffered from declining enrollment, poor morale, and, most critically, from insufficient funds to finish the school year. The reasons justifying this abject state of affairs were many.  They ranged from the vague assertion that times have changed, to the broad justification that our Catholic communities simply could no longer afford Catholic schools, and, more narrowly,  to specific charges implying simple mismanagement.  I suspect this scenario is not unique but repeats itself with minor variations throughout many of our Catholic school systems.

The committee formed to save our school acknowledged these reasons, but looked deeper. Why did Catholic schools once thrive when people were actually poorer than they are today, when people didn’t have wide screen televisions, when entertainment piped into our homes through cable networks was not considered an essential utility, when our children did not each have personal phones they carried everywhere, and when even our cars, like our lives were much simpler?  Our community is a small city in a rural area with a population that is largely Catholic. At the time of my initial involvement there were four parishes within an easy driving distance of no more than three miles from our one regional school.  If even one quarter of the Catholic population put their children in our school it would have thrived.

What the committee saw was that the Catholic community, neither pastor nor parishioner, no longer took ownership of its schools. The churches reluctantly contributed what the diocese demanded. The pastors begged off further support, financial or moral, claiming that the school was just a private academy benefiting few. They pointed to many problems, problems that ranged from financial need, to administrative incompetence, and even to students who did not know how to behave in Mass. Parishioners shared these views and saw the school as something solely for the parents of the students enrolled.  Parishioners believed that the schools had nothing to do with them.  Both parishioners and pastors were correct in their assessments. When we no longer see our schools as integral to our faith, they become orphans lost in the wilderness of the secular world, taking direction from wherever they can find it.  Our school had a financial crisis compounded by poor business practices, but the real problem, and one I believe is endemic to many of our Catholic schools, was and is a crisis of faith.

In our attempts to find the best business model for our Catholic schools we have forgotten that our schools are a faith based business.  Our capital is the faith we put into them. When that capital dries up, our schools wither and become something other than what they should be.  Our student population declines, our funds dry up, and parishioners and pastors see little reason to support the schools.  Even more tragically, our schools lose their way in the morass of academic excellence at the expense of their evangelical mission. We should know we have reached a crisis of faith when we seek guidance from marketing experts singing a siren’s song assuring us that our faith belongs in them. We should know we have reached a crisis of faith when we see the salvation of our schools in the wealthy donor rather than in the body of faithful who comprise our church. We should know we have a crisis of faith when our eyes no longer focus on Jesus as the sole purpose for our schools.  But we don’t, because to do so will require us to change.

I believe that the beginning to the end of our problems with our Catholic schools begins when we see the problem as a crisis of faith and we respond to it as a community of faith.  Our response will not only change our schools.  It will change us.  It will change both parishioner and pastor. It will require our pastors to see that God responds to their faith through their parishioners. It will require parishioners to see that their faith reveals resources previously unseen.  It will require all to see that our schools are an expression of our faith and a gift, both to our children and to ourselves as a community. And it requires all to see that it is the faith of the community that is the anchor that keeps our schools truly Catholic, where we see Jesus as “the truth, the way and the life.”

The call to faith in our communities must be mirrored with a call to faith in our schools. We must be able to answer the following questions; Why should we have Catholic schools? Why should Catholics support our Catholic schools? Why should our pastors justify our Catholic schools to their parishioners? Why should Catholic parents, or parents of any faith, send their children to Catholic schools? The answer to all of these questions is that our schools are integral to our Catholic faith. They are one of the tools the Church uses to bring Christ’s message of salvation to all.  Our schools are a simple reflection of the Church’s very reason to be. But we can only answer in this way if they are truly Christ centered and truly evangelical.

In a school so centered, academic excellence is necessarily correlative to the evangelical goal of the school, but it cannot be its guiding principle. The goal of the school is to lead students to Christ. To see their talents as given by God is to see that they must be returned to God fully developed.

This requires the highest academic standards.  To accept less than excellence would not be Catholic. But leading with academic excellence as our primary appeal pushes Christ aside. We will find ourselves conveying an ambivalent message to prospective parent and student, “Yes, we are Catholic.  But you don’t need to worry about that.”  Or as one marketing expert assured us, “You don’t need to mention Catholic in your marketing. People already know that.” The clear implication was that we don’t want to scare anybody away.  The pursuit of academic excellence, rather than the formation of saints, as the product we need in order to sell our schools in today’s marketplace will compel compromise. To think that we can bait with academics and then switch in Christ diminishes both the school and Christ.  Such an appeal is a reflection not on the faith of our potential clients but on our own faith. When we think our schools can be Christ-centered on the inside and worldly-wise on the outside, we will be serving two masters.  Jesus, himself, made it clear this was not possible. When we don’t lead with our faith we will find ourselves hiding Christ behind one door after another.  We will be serving the wrong master. Despite our best intentions, like the ever well-intended St. Peter, we will deny Christ.

When we fear an open proclamation of the message of Jesus Christ, we truly have entered a crisis of faith.  If the apostles had shown such reticence the church would have died with Jesus on the cross. Our faith is evident when we lead with Jesus Christ, not furtively, not stealthily, not even quietly but with the compelling confidence of a people who have been given the truth and understand that to spread that truth is to truly love your neighbor, whoever he or she may be and from whatever background they come. This is the mission of the church, to bring the message of salvation to all, not just those who won’t take offense. This should be the mission of our schools. When we try to hide this we become like Jonah, we run, we hide, or we board a ship going anywhere but where we have been called to go. We think that God couldn’t really have chosen us to spread his message.

We look on our neighbors as either undeserving of the truth or simply unready to receive the truth we hold. I believe we have become like Jonah with our Catholic schools. We won’t trumpet our faith because we believe it will turn people off. We think we need something slicker, something more comfortable, something that doesn’t call for real change. Like Jonah, we think others either don’t deserve the Word passed on to us or are simply not ready for it. When we hide our message, we hide our faith.  Faith hidden is no faith at all. We cannot rally our communities in faith to a message they cannot see.  Like pastor and parishioner, our schools must change in faith. They must become what we should be.

To see the problem is to realize that the solution is not an easy one. Where we are comfortable we must become uncomfortable. To see the problem as a crisis of faith is to see that the solution is a changed life. This is not an easy sell for either pastor, parishioner or our schools.  I believe the solution begins with an honest discussion within our Catholic communities of who we are as Catholics and how our schools must reflect that vision. We might begin those discussions with a book by Archbishop Miller, CSB, entitled The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools.  If our local schools are failing and we simply continue to point our fingers at them as responsible for their own fate, rather than at ourselves, then we have missed something important. If we don’t claim personal and communal responsibility our schools will continue to fail or they will become something no longer truly Catholic.

The mission statement guiding the schools of the Diocese of Wichita is unequivocal and provides an example that clearly leads the way:

“Together with the family, the parish and each other, we will FORM EACH STUDENT INTO A DISCIPLE OF JESUS CHRIST Who seeks the Truth, grows to love It, And learns to live It.” [Their caps, not mine.]

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  • Pargontwin

    I can add another facet to this problem, one that goes back to the late 1960s and early ’70s.  At that point in time, there existed three parishes and schools in the neighborhood.  Two of the parishes had succumbed to the “spirit” of Vatican Two and were barely recognizably Catholic; the third, the one to which my family belonged, was still very orthodox.  This was largely due to our pastor, a former Army chaplain, who was used to the battlefield environment.  We had a parish council, but when they started to stray too far from the orthodox, he would put his foot down and take control.  By 1965, both of the other schools had lay teachers, with not a sister in sight.  Ours was still taught by the Felician sisters.  When our other neighborhood schools updated their schoolbooks, they went to secular sources; ours stayed with the Catholic sources they had been using since the parish’s foundation in 1911.  Given that background, it should have come as no surprise when, in 1968, there began a movement at the diocesan level to close our school and divide the students between the other two.  They began by pulling the sisters out.  The convent was emptied and sold, to become a group home for the mentally retarded, and we suddenly had all-lay teachers.  Our pastor responded by taking charge of the catechism classes.  Next, they claimed that the school needed to be closed because its educational standards were inferior.  That got blasted out of the water when the students from our school did better on standardized tests than those from the other two.  Then, in 1972 they claimed the building was antiquated and unsafe; our parish council called in city officials to inspect the place, and they went on record as saying the place still far exceeded even updated modern standards.  One or two other ploys were tried, all of which were similarly struck down.  Finally, in 1975, the bishop, who was so notoriously heterodox that my father no longer contributed to diocesan collections, simply passed down an order to close the school.  This very nearly caused the financial collapse of the entire parish, because the school building could not be sold off, as the church was an integral part of the structure.  Those poor Polish immigrants, most of whom were supporting not only their families here in America, but also relatives back in Poland, somehow managed to dig deeper into their pockets to keep the church afloat.  

    Military service pulled me out of that neighborhood in 1980, and I haven’t been back since, but I have heard that somehow, the parish is still active.   But the Catholic life of the neighborhood has died, to the point that my brothers, still living there when I left and intending to remain there, have all moved away, no longer able to tolerate what the area had become.

    Basically, I put forth that the current crisis in our Catholic schools, even if not intentional, was engineered by the forced closure, or change where closure was not possible, in those schools which fought to remain orthodox in an era being suffocated by the “smoke of Satan” which had entered the newly opened windows of the Church.  Todays parents, themselves the children and grandchildren of the kids of my generation, see what has become of the schools; I imagine they figure that, if there’s really no difference between the education in Catholic and public schools, why should they pay tuition when their wallets are already stretched to the breaking point?  The children of today are reaping what my generation sowed.  And on behalf of my generation, whether they like it or not, I would like to offer my hearffelt apologies for what we have done to them.

  • QueenofPeace

    Thank you for your astute observation and commentary. My response to  the state of Catholic schools is Homeschooling. God bless you, and apology accepted.

  • For the Catholic school to truly thrive and of course survive it must be unconditionally Catholic with Mass, adoration, confession, and religion class being the building block of the school.  The priest must be involved and the teachers and administration must be always growing in their relationship with Christ and the Church.  The Catholic school will only survive when parents, teachers, and administration are committed to forming children’s minds, hearts, and souls for Heaven.  If prayer, and knowing God isn’t evident in the Catholic school then one must ask why is the school even open.  

  • Terrygeorge

    thank you for sharing what you have seen occur.  and thank you very sincerely for the intergenerational apology.  that is the 1st time i have ever been offered it, and i really do see the purpose of it.  i take it to heart.

  • Lpapet

    Simply put, most Catholic schools have become nothing more than an alternative to public education.  I recently taught high school religion at a regional Catholic school and was dismayed to come to the realization that faith and faith formation were the least of reasons for sending their children to this school for 90% of the parents.  The “real” reason for thei children being there was their desire to isolate them from the “dangers” of the public schools and to increase their chances for success in the secular world via what they believed to be a superior academic program.  Futhermore, 40% of the students/families were not Catholic and about half the teachers were also not Catholic.  In fact, our Biology/Chemistry teacher was a former Catholic turned athiest who was very comfortable informing his students that he’d been a Catholic until “getting science”.  Suffice to say, we had neither unity of belief or unity of effort regarding any attempts to teach our students to know what they believed (as Catholic Christians) and why they believe it.  No wonder so many of these students (and others like them I’m sure) fall away from the Church once they are in colleges that preach the gospel of secular humanism.

    Solutions?  Not sure there are any easy fixes given that I’m increasingly of the opinon that very very few Americans who call themselves Catholic actually either believe or follow the teachings of the Church or Bible.  I fear things will need to get much worse before a remnant of true believers is able to one day build the Church in America (with God’s blessings and guidance) from the ashes.

  • klossg

    Christ centered schools.  Finally the real answer … make them Catholic and Catholics who love being Catholic will care and put their children in and see the value of them even if they have no children in them.  

    But, since most Catholic schools of today are based on business and preparatory principles, they should not be supported by the Church or the parishoners but by marketing and statistics.  I wouldn’t enroll my kids in a Catholic school for any other reason than to grow in true Catholic faith.  I’d break my back end doing overtime if I know they could grow in true Christ centered Catholic faith at a school close to my home.

  • mamaoffour

    Our four children were enrolled in the local Catholic school. We lived just down the street and we had been members of the Church since our arrival in the city. We are not well to do and we gave up every luxury to give our children a Catholic education. Then our daughter began to be bullied. The first time it was addressed and the other girl left the school. The second time it was not addressed and the girl who bullied our daughter was allowed to tell her to go kill herself, but we were not allowed to speak to the priest or the principal. We were told our daughter was the problem. Then our son was attacked at a school event. We tried to address it with the school and it was not addressed. We tried to address it with priest and we were told we were emasculating our son. We had been members of the church and members of the school for years, but the new family that moved in, the family with the children who were bullying (physically, mentally and emotionally) my children had money and connections that we dd not. Guess who left? Guess who is still there. I truly believed in Catholic schools and a Catholic education until it became clear that our school was not a Catholic or Christ centered School, but just another organization that was scared to take a stand and cared only for money. That’s okay, my children are succeeding in their new environment. They are succeeding with their Christian teachers who teach them about Christ through actions instead of words only. Catholic schools? If run correctly… If all are treated equally… If money is not the focus… are wonderful. Unfortunately, in our community – that doesn’t exist.