Catholic Schools–What’s the Point?

There is an old anecdote that, in one form or another, could be uttered by Catholic school students of a certain generation. It is the old story of Sr. Mary telling her second graders that:

“If God stopped thinking about you even for a second, you would cease to exist.”

I know that I’ve heard variations on this story for many years and I’m sure that there are several different expressions of it in other contexts. But summed up is one of the most profound existential and theological truths that one can hold. Indeed, second graders, far from not being able to understand the profound truth that it expresses, are the first and most intellectually open to these truths. I wish that I could say that second graders in most Catholic schools today could hear such common sense, but alas, the Catholic school system by and large has committed intellectual suicide. As Belloc once said, “the more we are of this world…the further are we drifting from the shores of the Blessed.”

Experience over the last 40 years has borne this out: the listlessness of Catholic school 8th graders at their Confirmation Masses, the inability of high school students to state with conviction that an unborn child is a child or that Jesus actually rose from the dead, or the profound ignorance of Catholic college students as to the basic tenets of the Creed or that grass is green. This pervasive ignorance and apathy is largely not the fault of these students. While it involves a combination of factors and, perhaps, experiences (that may be as numerous as the students we are speaking of), we can certainly speak to the role of the Church and her schools and the abysmal failure they have been over the last forty years–the smiles of her educational leaders notwithstanding. But why are they smiling? By what standard do the educational leaders of the Church measure the success of their schools?

Today we hear clarion calls by Archbishops and Bishops in the United States to defend the Faith and the need to love the Faith especially in the midst of a hostile federal government and aggressive secularism. Unfortunately, many of the faithful in this country are not in a position to do either, largely because they have never been taught to think as the Church does. Immersed in a culture and an educational system that professes the creed of “what you see is what you get,” how can the bishops expect Catholics in this country to defend the truths of the Faith or the Church? True, there are people of goodwill who will heed the call of the bishops to love and defend the faith; but without the proper understanding of reality, I suspect that many will neither be able to love, nor defend, that precious gift.

19910_10151438785907443_1741148479_nI am not suggesting that the bishops not call us to love and defend the Faith, but that the bishops themselves should also do so by doing the hard work of reforming their Catholic schools. Thus, helping to equip new generations of Catholics to know the Faith and defend it. While bishops rarely offer explicit excuses why they cannot reform their schools, we know from experience the subtle excuses offered or the “punting” when a tough question comes from a concerned parent. Reliance on the diocesan education office is de rigueur. Generally, however, the diocesan education office is often populated with “education experts” who—trained in the dominant Dewey-inspired philosophy of most university education departments—offer what can only be described as a parroting of educational fads (e.g., iPads for every student) or secular-sounding marketing initiatives (e.g., “Aim Higher”). Rarely will theirs be a philosophy steeped in that which is. Their focus generally tends towards the pragmatic, the utilitarian, and what can be measured by this-worldly standards (see our own Stephanie Block’s “Explaining Common Core”). Given these realities, it seems that the official Church in the United States is more concerned with fitting in with the turba delirantium (the education professionals) than the turba sanctorum (the communion of saints); with receiving accolades from secular accreditors than the Eternal Accreditor. Is this another example of the Americanist heresy—the desire to fit in, to show that we are good citizens of, in this case, the reigning educational polity? Indeed, Chesterton nailed it when he diagnosed the problem of modern education as “standardization by a low standard.”

So where have the Catholic schools failed? The Father of Lies is most subtle. In the great secular movements of the modern world, we have seen the public philosophy shift from one that acknowledged the supernatural and the mysterious workings of Providence to one that is not so much hostile as dismissive or apathetic. Indeed, this public philosophy has affected our laws and our educational institutions. If the public philosophy of the West has become secular, individualistic and materialistic, can we expect that the philosophy of government schools won’t? That the education departments of major universities won’t? Can we expect that Catholics of goodwill, not steeped in their own tradition or the tradition of the philosophia perennis, would be saavy to the new paradigm?

Squarely against this, notwithstanding her members, stands the Church speaking the truth of reality: that the wholeness of reality is that which is seen and that which is unseen; that the world is surrounded and protected by angels, that demons deceive us, that (sometimes) trees talk, that water turns into wine and that bread becomes the flesh of God; that a human person is composed of a body and a soul–whose workings and movements are so mysterious that it defies any dismissive labeling of a sexual preference or race; that the same human person yearns for fulfillment, for happiness and that he will only find glimpses of this happiness on this earth. Finally, as Sr. Mary told her second graders, that the same human person is so beloved by his Creator that He can’t stop thinking about him—so loved that the Creator’s very thought keeps that human person in existence. And, finally, that the Creator continually enters time and breaks through the bonds of nature to bring His beloved to supernature—on the steps of the altar.

Teaching children to recognize this is the duty and mission of the Catholic school.


This article, Catholic Schools–What’s the Point? is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
Do not repost the entire article without written permission. Reasonable excerpts may be reposted so long as it is linked to this page.

John M. DeJak

John M. DeJak is an attorney and Latin teacher and works in academic administration. He writes from Ann Arbor, Michigan.
  • Ann says:

    Another good article along the same line:

  • Always Happy says:

    Too many so-called Catholic schools are ‘Catholic’ in name, only! Just take a look at their atmosphere, how the faith is taught and/or practiced in the school, etc. I have no problem with a lay faculty but what kind of example are they giving the children they teach? Too many Catholic families don’t even bother attending Mass on Sundays or holydays. What a joke! The Church could save herself a lot of money, etc., by just closing the schools down!

  • Anonymous Catholic School Teacher says:

    It makes me throw up a little when I think of the realities that you pointed out. The concern to please professionals, rather than God, for example.

    And these stupid slogans. “Aim Higher” — exactly! Aim for what? A higher score on the ACT? A higher vertical in PE class? A higher place in heaven? These schools propose subjective promises and lofty goals with have no means to achieve them. WHAT ARE THEY TRYING TO DO??? I think it was well that you pointed this out, but of course I wish you would’ve gone further to really nail these people in their subjective mentality. They provide no course, no path… If you are teaching a kid to ride a bike, that is your task, your goal. You want to achieve this skill. If the kid doesn’t get it, you don’t keep buying him nicer bikes or bikes with shinier, different colors, as if that will make him get it and achieve the goal. Unfortunately, this is what schools are doing. The kids don’t get it and instead of trying to go back to the basics and teaching a kid what a bike actually is and its purpose, we buy them shinier bikes (i.e., Ipads and Ipods). Right…as if that will help them achieve the goal. They don’t even know what they are doing!!!! Unfortunately they don’t even know what a bike is. A true catholic school will teach a child what a bike is, its purpose, its goal. It will make the bike a part of him, so that when a shinier toy comes along, they will not discard the bike, because they know the true purpose of the bike and its essential use.

    We are drawn by the Absolute within us. Education is awakening yourself to the noble realties around you. Teaching a child to take a noble idea and make it a part of who they are — forget the gimicks. They see right through that. I think most Catholic schools present Truth like commericals do. No. You teach them to see the divine light on a natural level. This is The Reality.

    • John M. DeJak says:

      Well put, Anonymous. I like the analogy to the bike. I suspect that many Catholic parents are today no longer trusting the official Catholic schools to do the job that they would have done in generations past. That is why we are seeing the institutional diocesan schools fall into an abyss of “gimmickry” and mimicry of the worst in public education and what the “experts” say they should do. Perhaps this is also why we are seeing newer independent schools that provide much hope in the way of restoring sanity and a coherent philosophy. Maybe these schools will cause a reevaluation of the diocesan schools and a rediscovery of Catholic orthodoxy and orthopraxis.

  • Dale Ahlquist the other day quoted Chesterton saying this same thing and more. I talk about that here – along with the dreadful “Catholic Schools Week” –

    • John M. DeJak says:

      Ahh yes! Catholic Schools Week–where Catholic Schools especially act like public schools. What a waste. Again–“gimmickry and mimicry (of all the wrong things).”

  • […] But such a reform cannot be successful if we concentrate only in guarding or holding on to values. Genuinely religious schooling, whether in classrooms or in homes, must provide a cultural leaven such as originally rescued the nations that replaced […]

  • The only true bright spots I see in Catholic education are the various Catholic Homeschool associations and some of the religous orders who take the faith seriously and aid, supplement and pray for the homeschoolers.

  • Amy says:

    Catholic high schools have become exclusive prep schools for the elite. If you are not athletically talented, academically gifted or rich you need not apply. Being authentically Catholic is not even on the check list with the “admissions committee”. They only care about what you scored on a standardised test 1-2 years prior, not if you help the homeless, protest at prolife rallies or any charitable works you perform. It doesn’t matter how many times you attend Mass weekly or pray as a family, none of that matters anymore. In short, they are way off the mission statement of what makes them a Catholic school in the first place. It is a sad state of affairs when you have to choose between the Godless public schools or a non-Catholic christian school for your teenagers. Catholic schools have sold their soul to the almighty dollar and no longer care about saving the souls of our youth. The youth are no longer even considered bodies with a soul but rather a price tag of how much they can make off one. Forget it if you are prolife and have a large family, you’ll still be charged a fee to register PER child, same goes for the application. If anything, it makes it harder because you do not have the financial resources. I speak from experience as my 14 yr old daughter was rejected by 2 Catholic schools in 2 weeks (after having paid $200 in “non-refundable application fees”) because of her standardised test score. I don’t even know if that was why, I wasn’t given a reason on one and the other was “we don’t think you would fit in….we don’t have the resources to help you”. I guess we are just too Catholic to fit in. I’ve given up on the Catholic school system and am now going to route of non-Catholic christian schools. This is a real travesty.

  • David says:

    My wife and I have four children, practice NFP, are active in our local parish where I teach CCD. We’ve seen the same thing. Catholic HS locally is up to 10K per year per student, for us that would be 160K (4×4). It’s not doable, unless we sell the house, we’re middle class and would not qualify for any aid. And we’re not going to sell the house. The HS has become, first and foremost “an exclusive prep school”. No thank you! What we have left is CCD and teaching at home. There is a disparity here. The USCCB recently issued a Framework in Study for Student’s of a HS age”, but the Bishop here has only been pushing this in the private HS. It needs to be pushed down to every parish level. HS education in catholic faith should not end with 8th or 9th grade Confirmations. I work with people who have Master’s degrees in their field of work, and an 8th grade education in their catholic faith. This thinking is up-side-down! And the formerly catholic high schools have become little more than expensive prep schools.. Why can’t bishops see this?

  • Great school for both of my sons. The atmosphere is wonderful and all students are nurtured and supported. You want to know more please click this link.

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