Catholic Identity in Catholic Schools

What makes a Catholic school “Catholic?” Catholic primary and secondary schools have experienced a number of changes in the years since the Second Vatican Council. Today Catholic schools are staffed almost entirely by lay people while in the 1960s they were staffed primarily by religious sisters, brothers and priests. As Catholics move from the inner-city to the suburbs, inner-city parish schools have dwindled in enrollment filling the halls with non-Catholic students. Some fear that these changes signify a crisis in Catholic identity. Indeed, there seems to be no hotter issue about Catholic schools than the discussion about what it means for a Catholic school to be called “Catholic.”

Unfortunately, the debate about Catholic school identity has gone to two extremes. Neither one is incorrect, but they alone they are not indicative of full Catholicity. On the one side, the single characteristic of a Catholic school is thought to be doctrinal fidelity to the Magisterium. The strength of this view is that it highlights the profound, revealed truth found in the teachings of the Catholic Church, which must be found in a Catholic school for it to be Catholic. The weakness is that it can be alienating toward non-Catholics who now include nearly 15% of the students enrolled in Catholic schools. Cardinal Avery Dulles called this group of people “Catholicists” in his book The Catholicity of the Catholic Church.  Dulles argued that ecumenism was essential to achieve the Church’s catholicity, therefore “Catholicism taken in the ‘Catholicist’ sense, could be the enemy of catholicity” (p. 164).

On the other side, Catholicity is limited to mean “universal” as only one of the four marks of the Church (one, holy, catholic (universal), and apostolic).  The strength of this view is that it highlights the inclusiveness of a Catholic school in which all are welcome. The weakness is that it can rob a Catholic school of its distinctness making it no different from a charter school. It runs the risk of reducing “Christianity to merely human wisdom” (John Paul II, Redemptoris missio, no. 11)

I suggest that a school is Catholic in its ability to reveal Christ to the students, parents, and staff of the school.  The Church is a sacrament “of communion with God and of unity among all men.” The Church is the Body of Christ. Its members are diverse but united and equally parts of one another. As sacrament, the Church is Christ’s instrument of salvation (CCC, 775-776). As a ministry of the Catholic Church, Catholic schools too are a sign of that unity, that communion, in Christ and an instrument of salvation.

I’m not interested in discovering the bare minimum requirements or standards that make a school Catholic. I am only interested in strong Catholic identity. Strong Catholic identity can be found in schools that point to a reality beyond itself. These schools are clearly given life by Christ. Strong Catholic identity, therefore, can be found in schools that have the following characteristics:


  • School has a curriculum that “order the whole of human culture to the news of salvation so that the knowledge the students gradually acquire of the world, life and man is illumined by faith.” (Declaration on Christian Education, no. 8)
  • Effective religious education program that not only teaches about the faith, but brings students into a mature relationship with their faith and ultimately Jesus Christ.
  • Religious instruction as evangelization should witness to the faith, but not practice coercion (Circular Letter to the Presidents of Bishops’ Conferences on Religious Education in Schools, 15).
  • Not separated from the culture, but integrates faith into culture through learning.
Faculty and Staff
  • Faculty who work together between disciplines and subjects, particularly between religious education classes and other disciplines.
  • Effective spiritual development opportunities for faculty and staff.
  • Faculty and staff living out their vocations as priests, religious, lay ministers, or non-Catholic teachers in the Church. Teaching is a ministry of the Catholic Church and one that many lay people now pursue as their vocation.
  • A school in which all students are welcome no matter what denomination or religion.
  • Students exhibit ownership over their own faith leading prayers, willingly doing community service, and witnessing to their faith.
School Culture
  • Prayer is infused throughout the life of the school.
  • Regular participation in the sacraments is offered.
  • Parents willingly participate in the school community and work together with teachers to educate their children.

What is your perspective? What makes a school Catholic? What else reveals strong Catholic identity?


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  1. jdonliturgy says:

    Good take, Jared… I also like what the National Directory for Catechesis has to say, in its extensive section on Catholic schools… that a Catholic school is a "community of faith and center for evangelization". The mission is to make disciples, not to turn out mini-theologians.

  2. Jared Dees, M.Ed. says:

    Great point – all too often religion teachers (myself included) fall into that trap.

  3. kkollwitz says:

    "center for evangelization"

    That suits me, living the the Bible Belt, and that's one my goals in 6th grade catchism.

    I'd say I sent my kids to Catholic school expecting they'd be more likely to stay Catholic than if they went to public school.

    So far so good.

  4. Faustin N. Weber says:

    I agree with everything you've said, Jared, but would go a step further, because I don't think you've articulated principles that would distinguish Catholic schools from many other excellent Christian schools.

    I think it's OK to say "in communion with the local bishop" or words to that effect, since he is the visible link to the historical revelation and world-wide communion of faith.

    Fortunately, this need not imply some sort of slavish "toe the line adherence to doctrine to the exclusion of other Christians who don't agree". As you articulate well, there is an ecumenical imperative that is at the heart of the ecclesiology of our Church as "sacrament" and as instrument of salvation. We are blessed by the witness of the many strong Christian families that make up our schools, even while we work within the institutional structures and doctrines of our Catholic faith. I am daily edified by their witness, even as, I hope, they are edified by ours.

  5. Jared Dees says:

    Thank you, Faustin. You offer a great perspective. It is a great challenge to stay middle of the road between these two perspectives. Like you say, it is OK to cite the local bishop in reference to school's Catholic identity. In fact, according to canon law, that IS what makes a school Catholic. It is unfortunate that Church hierarchy calls to mind tradition with a small "t" rather than the connection that a bishop has to the Apostles and therefore Christ. A bishop, like all members of the clergy, have taken on a sacramental character that does indeed make them a visible sign of the invisible unity of the Church and Christ himself.

  6. Ryan O'Connor says:

    Great blog, Jared, and thanks for opening up a most important topic. I'm not familiar with this Cardinal Dulles quote; I'll have to check out the book for more context. But I am familiar with another Dulles quote regarding Catholic identity. He says that a "Catholic institution must be founded on 3 principles: that there is a God, that he has made a full and final revelation of himself in Jesus Christ and that the Catholic Church is the authorized custodian and teacher of this body of revealed truth."

    Do you have any thoughts on how he reconciles these principles with his argument against "Catholicists"? I also don't understand how fidelity to the Magisterium can be seen as non-ecumenical. Ecumenism in our "universal" Church does indeed mean we include all, but it also means we invite all to reconcile with the one and only Church of Christ (CCC 822).

    When parents – Catholic & non-Catholic alike – send their children to a "Catholic" school, they should expect authentic "Catholicism" to be taught. I don't think any "politically correct" watering down of the doctrine does anybody any favors.

    Our beloved University is a perfect example of the decay that occurs. A few short decades after breaking from the authority of Rome, you get things like "The University should NOT compromise its academic aspirations in its efforts to maintain its Catholic identity." (Faculty Senate, 4/9/08)… and heretic professors like Richard McBrien with a full license to teach things like adoration is a waste of time… and we are all fully aware of countless more problematic examples.

    I definitely agree with your list of needed characteristics for Catholic schools living out their mission. Well said. However, most (all but the one regarding Sacraments) of these would also be on the list of any Christian school. What separates a Catholic school is communion/fidelity to Rome (through their local Bishop, as Faustin points out). Given the confused state of Catholic identity in our country today, complicating the issue beyond that makes me very nervous.

    Don't we have a word to describe Christians separated from Peter and his teachings?


  7. Jared Dees says:

    Thanks Ryan. Your zeal is what keeps Catholic schools alive.

    I’m not sure how Dulles would reconcile the two ideas you mention and I would want to know the context of the quote you give first before I could make a judgment. I do know that in Dulles’ Models of the Church, he includes the Church hierarchy/institution as one of his models.

    I doubt that any non-Catholic parent would reasonably object to authentic Catholicism being taught in Catholic schools. Nor do I think Catholic schools can justifiably “water down” doctrine. However, having an awareness of where the students are coming from is essential if religion teachers really want to get the message across. We have to be careful not to take on a take-it-or-leave-it mentality when it comes to religious instruction.

    I intentionally did not refer to University Catholic identity in this post because I believe that it is an entirely different monster. The Vatican itself deals with Catholic identity in different ways at that level (see Ex corde Ecclesiae and its Application by the USCCB). Also, in defense of Fr. McBrien, despite his flaws, he or his writings have never been found to be heretical by the CDF.

  8. Ryan O'Connor says:

    "having an awareness of where the students are coming from is essential if religion teachers really want to get the message across."

    Absolutely! Great point.

    (I'll have to chew on the "take it or leave it…" Perhaps you can expand on that.)

    I understand wanting to steer clear of the University debate, but I've never understood how it's a "different monster" when it comes to Catholic identity. To what do you refer when you say the Vatican treats Higher Ed. Catholic identity differently? Ex Corde and Canon Law both say "Catholic" universities must teach authentic Catholicism. They also require "Catholic" theologians to have a mandate from their local Bishop.

    As for McBrien, perhaps the CDF has never officially declared him heretical, but do we really need it to? When is the last time McBrien's moral theology jived with Catholic teaching? Has it ever?

    Actually, the US Bishops twice censured his book "Catholicism" and the US Secretariat for Doctrine and Pastoral Practices did indeed declare his book erroneous. It's difficult to make a complete list of doctrines flatly denied by McBrien but you can start with the pop-culture faves: male-only ordination, sexuality, and contraception. He has also called into question the sinless nature of JESUS, His birth to a virgin, transubstantiation, whether Jesus was celibate, etc. etc. etc. If that's not heretical, I don't know what is.

    Bishop Rhoades said he expects ND to follow Ex Corde Ecclesiae. What do you think are McBrien's chances of ever receiving a mandate? Not that he would ever submit to his Bishop anyway.

  9. Jared Dees, M.Ed. says:

    This will be my last comment about Catholic identity and higher education. Ex Corde Ecclesiae was written specifically for Catholic Universities and theologians. Catholic grade schools are not mentioned. We could certainly try to make judgments about how it applies to K-12 education, as others have done, but I for one am unwilling to do so. The CDF looks closely at the written work of Catholic theologian (not Catholic school teachers) for theological issues. Some theologians' works have been found to be heretical and they were removed from their teaching positions. My point with McBrien is that even though he was asked to revise Catholicism – which he did – he was never declared a heretic (Code of Canon Law, 2089) and was neither removed from his teaching position at ND or excommunicated (Code of Canon Law, 1364, 1321).

  10. Tony Hollowell says:

    I want to examine the statement “Catholicism taken in the ‘Catholicist’ sense, could be the enemy of catholicity.”

    It was claimed in the preceeding paragraphs that a ‘Catholicist’ thinks that “the single characteristic of a Catholic school is thought to be doctrinal fidelity to the Magisterium.”

    Thus, if we re-examine Dulles quote on being a ‘Catholicist’, and replace the term Catholicist with its actual definition, we get the statement: “Catholicism, taken in the sense of doctrinal fidelity to the Magisterium, could be the enemy of catholicity.”

    Thus, we have concluded that fidelity to the Magisterium could be the the enemy of catholicity.

    Did I miss something?

  11. Ryan O'Connor says:

    Just to clarify… The SDPP's "erroneous" declaration came AFTER McBrien's revision.

    Since Canon Law allows the CDF to declare theologians heretical but they have not done so with McBrien, are you suggesting that we are to conclude his teachings are in line with the Church? And if that's the case, why didn't his book receive a Nihil Obstat or Imprimatur?

    Unfortunately the Bishops or CDF have not been able to give these Canons much teeth. Besides Charles Curran, how many other collegiate theologians have actually been removed from their position?

  12. TJ D'Agostino says:

    Interesting thread and interesting blog post, Jared. To Tony's comment, I don't think the disputed point is whether a school is faithful to the Magisterium, I think all in this conversation would agree this is a good thing. I think the problem is when one stresses fidelity to the Magisterium as the exclusive or even primary criteria of Catholicity. The primary criteria of Catholicity should focus on love of God, love of neighbor, and commitment to educating the whole child in a way that helps to reveal the truth and goodness of creation and especially the joy of the promises of Christ. Fidelity to God is more important than fidelity to the Magisterium. These are not opposed, but one aims to give service to the other. The goal of a Catholic school is simply bigger, more awesome and more inspiring than merely being faithful to the Magisterium. The goal is to be faithful to God. The Magisterium is, of course, a helpful and important guide.

    On a related note and responding to the thread in general, we should be careful not to become too Pharisaic in our approach, and I think this is what Jared is getting at. If we become so concerned with who is following which rules or who is different than us in which ways that we fail to follow the essential rules and the deeper ones… to love more than we judge others, to love our enemies and those that are different than us, whether Protestant, Catholic or otherwise, than we have missed the whole point. What is most essential to the Catholicity of a Catholic school need not be distinct from what is essential to Christian identity, and in fact it often may not be distinct. I suspect this is something close to what Dulles was trying to get at in his discussion of Catholicists. If we become more concerned with what makes us distinct from other Christians than the essential points of our faith, regardless of who shares it, than we have gone astray.

  13. ed verdadero says:

    great inspiring article jared. really thought provoking. am from the Philippines. hope we can keep in touch via my email ad . am really eager to get more access to your beautiful articles.

    peace my friend.