The Catholic Thing
The Bigger Picture of Catholic Education Print E-mail
By David G. Bonagura, Jr.   
Wednesday, 20 October 2010
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In his homily for the beatification of John Henry Newman, Benedict XVI recalled the English cardinal’s keen insights into “the most pressing ‘subjects of the day’” – the relationship between faith and reason, the role of religion in society, and the nature of liberal education. That Benedict expanded only on this last is noteworthy. Newman’s enormous contributions to education were never mentioned as potential papal material in the pre-visit media hype, and the homily complemented his earlier address to teachers and pupils, which offered a challenge to the narrowness of secularism through the time tested medium of Catholic education.

In Britain Benedict cautioned that a society closed off to revealed religion risks collapsing into ideologies that can jeopardize human dignity or generate social evils such as slavery and totalitarian regimes. Academic subjects – science, history, philosophy, economics – face similar dangers if they refuse to acknowledge the transcendent. The pope told Britain’s pupils that these disciplines “can lead us seriously astray” if their account of human life is too narrowly focused on the immanent.

Catholic education, from primary school through the university level, counters this narrow perspective by opening the student to God’s plan for creation: “In your Catholic schools, there is always a bigger picture over and above the individual subjects you study, the different skills you learn. All the work you do is placed in the context of growing in friendship with God, and all that flows from that friendship. So you learn not just to be good students, but good citizens, good people.” Echoing Jesus in the upper room, Benedict reminded pupils that they are not called to be slaves of the world; they are to be friends of the Lord whom they will love more deeply by studying His creation.

Following Newman, Benedict twice asserted that education must never serve purely utilitarian goals. Education “is about forming the human person, equipping him or her to live life to the full – in short it is about imparting wisdom. And true wisdom is inseparable from knowledge of the Creator.” Catholic education is at its best when, following Newman, it seeks an “environment in which intellectual training, moral discipline, and religious commitment would come together.” When properly cultivated, this environment educates the whole person, and, “over and above this, should help all its students to become saints.”

       Pope Benedict XVI beatifies Cardinal Newman

Benedict’s exhortations present a compelling rationale and orientation for Catholic education on the western side of the Atlantic, where Catholic primary and secondary schools are struggling desperately to stay afloat in competition with state sponsored monopolies. Catholic schools too often try to promote themselves with pithy slogans about “faith and values” without articulating what the words mean or how they fulfill the true mission of education. Benedict’s presentation to children on the nature of Catholic education is likely to be far more appealing and effective at attracting new families to Catholic schools than any chancery sponsored advertising campaign designed by secular marketers.

Catholic education’s vexing difficulty is its growing cost. Catholic schools’ determination to educate the hearts, minds, and souls of their students certainly appeals to the sentiments of a majority of American parents, Catholic or otherwise, but many simply cannot foot the bill. The burden used to be lighter when orders of nuns served as teachers. Without creative thinking and radical restructuring, Catholic schools risk pricing themselves out of existence. Archbishop Timothy Dolan recently presented the rudiments of his plan “to recover our nerve and promote our schools for the twenty-first century.” Central to its success will be convincing all Catholics – even those who attend parishes without schools – that Catholic education is “a communal, ecclesial duty” that all must support for the good of the Church, the world, and souls. Dolan looks to the past for models, but the present has at least one enviable example: St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin in Pittsburgh offers its parishioners a tuition-free parochial school, and it does so through tithing.

But creativity and practical thinking must never blur or oppose the bigger picture of Catholic education articulated by Benedict. The presentations of such thinking should also reflect the goals of Catholic education. The new school campaign of the Archdiocese of New York has been dubbed “Pathways to Excellence,” a phrase more akin to a presidential education initiative than Catholic school reform.

The pressing “subjects of the day” that Benedict challenged in Britain – and has challenged throughout his papacy and long theological career – require “an intelligent, well-instructed laity” as envisioned by Newman and repeated by Benedict. Catholic schools have been and must continue to be the backbone of the Catholic engagement of modernity. But as both Benedict and Newman agree, we need not only arguments but also “the witness of lives lived in integrity, fidelity, and holiness.” We need saints, and for that we need Catholic schools today as much as ever.

David G. Bonagura, Jr. is Adjunct Professor of Theology at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Huntington, NY.

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Comments (10)Add Comment
written by John Hinshaw, October 21, 2010
The experience of Catholic Schools in my lifetime is a severe decrease in teaching the Faith coinciding with a marked increase in tuition rates. This was a lethal combination with obvious results. When Catholic schools return to teaching the Faith the Faithful are more willing to pay for it.

written by Dennis Larkin, October 21, 2010
The greatest enemies of Catholic schools are Catholics who place their children in government schools. They resent the example of their fellow-Catholics' sacrifices for one's children. And by driving up the unending demand for tax revenues for government schools, these government school
Catholics serve doubly to beggar their Catholic school neighbors.
written by Lee Gilbert, October 21, 2010
The tuition is $4-5,000 per year, neither the parents nor the children attend Sunday mass, religion is not one of the the important subjects (we know this because unlike every other subject there is no annual test to measure growth), but the school is loaded with Catholic "atmosphere." Sound like your local Catholic grade school? The Catholic high school costs $8-12,000 per year, the parking lot is loaded with the students' Mercedes, BMWs and SUVs, the girls look trashy in their rolled up uniform skirts and as Catholics the parents don't know their right hand from their left.

We need this? What happens to Joe Joblots and his devout family who have been effectively priced out of the kingdom? If the Catholic school system is, or was intended to be an instrument of preaching the gospel, the gospel itself indicates in several places that the poor should have the gospel preached to them in preference to the rich.

Our present situation is all backwards.

And the solution is? Catholic semi-homeschooling, where parents are encouraged to teach their own children the faith using the Baltimore Catechism (sic. We know it is effective) from about age 4 on. Where parents are encouraged to spend time with their children in the evening reading good secular literature and full length lives of the saints. 80-90 minutes a night four or five nights a week. Darkness, winter, cold and rain are the best friends of this program, whereas summer, television and particualrly televised sports are its enemies.

It can be done. We know this, because the Mormons are doing it (mutatis mutandi) and it has done wonders for them. They call it Family Night.

In other words, we do not need a lot of money to educate our kids. We do need some imagination. We do need some leadership.
written by Achilles, October 21, 2010
Thank you for an excellent article! Education is such an inportant topic today, it is at once highly undervalued and highly overvalued. The swindlers who continually weave new cloth for the empress' new clothes have become the educational establishment. They get their orders from Satan.
written by Damien, October 21, 2010
All of the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Wichita, Kansas are tuition-free and supported by stewardship of time, talent, and treasure. And not only are they surviving, but thriving! Thanks be to God.
written by Edmund, October 22, 2010
I would love to know how midwestern Kansas can provide a free Catholic education to its people while Catholic schools in the more affluent northeast are closing or raising tuition a few hundred dollars every year. Clearly this is a secret that needs to be shared with the whole country.
written by Marc Cardaronella, October 22, 2010
There needs to be a big change in the priorities of Catholic schools before the parishioners should be required out of tithe to foot the bill. There needs to be a real plan that the administration will follow that shows the school is indeed an instrument for transmitting the gospel and infusing a Catholic worldview throughout every subject taught. That, sadly, is not the case with the majority of Catholic schools today. I agree with Lee, $5,000 for primary grades and $12,000 for high school just to attend an glorified prep school with a Catholic name? Just because some say it's the salvation of the Church? It hasn't worked yet! When Catholic schools return to teaching the Faith with the rigor of other subjects, then the parishioners might be willing to pay. But it's true, we all know that this kind of Catholic environment is not being provided now.

I also agree with Lee in that the family is the answer for the current crisis. Parents must be encouraged to spend time with their children and teach the Faith. And, the parish must support them in this. He is right. Family Night is really working for the Mormons. It is part of their family established ritual. It needs to be that for Catholics as well.
written by ONeal, October 23, 2010
Focus on Catholic elementary and secondary schools is a case of the tail wagging the dog. Most Catholic adults in the U.S. know very little about their faith. Their understanding of Church doctrine and theology is rudimentary. It is frequently at a grade school level. In the face of the huge moral issues facing Catholics today, their ambivalence about what the Church teaches is amazing. The first focus of each diocese should be educating adults. Educated Catholic parents should then have the responsibility to give their children the fundamentals of their faith in a nurturing home environment. What will follow (in addition to educated adult Catholics in the public square) is the desire for schools at all academic levels that deepen the knowledge and practice of the Faith. And the curriculum for adults? Start with the Catechism of the Catholic Church and move on to theology.
written by Damien, October 23, 2010
Edmund, you are right- it does need to be shared. But it's not about affluence. The priests and parishioners are passionate about supporting their schools. Many schools are cleaned by volunteer parishioners. The same stewards might give their time as secretaries, librarians, cooks, coaches, and aides. Then there are parishioners who are carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and technology experts- providing services to further help the schools save money. But of course it isn't only about the money- it's their love for the Catholic schools. I like to think it's stewardship at its best. And one of the greatest blessings from it all... numerous priestly and religious vocations are being cultivated in our Catholic high schools! All of this built on a foundation of orthodoxy and faithfulness to the Church.
written by Roy Petitfils, October 25, 2010
Thanks for the reflection and commentary David. Great post. With regard to the tuition issue I believe that will always be a parochial issue in asmuch as it is an issue of priorities and community buy-in. That being said, I watched my (single) mother work 4 jobs, often go without, and be chided by friends and family in order to give me a Catholic education. The greatest gift she ever gave to me. But it was a priority for her. For many it is not. A

The real gift in Catholic education for me was teaching me HOW to think--not what to think. In that I believe it developed within me a Catholic imagination--an ability to creatively respond to a rapidly changing world in a manner that respects the dignity of the human person. I worry that too much Cath Ed today is mere information dumping that families will broker through the internet sooner than later. Our real uniqueness and gift to the world is not "excellence" rather but a wholeness, holiness which comes through formation of the mind, heart, soul and body. That's an education I want my sons to have.

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