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 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.
- 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?