Forming a Faithful Laity

Last December, speaking to Catholic school parents, Pope Francis stressed the importance of Catholic education at every level, from childhood through the university.

He emphasized the Church’s traditional understanding of the role of parents, noting, “It is your right to request an appropriate education for your children, an integral education open to the most authentic human and Christian values. As parents, you are the depositories of the duty and the primary and inalienable right to educate your children.”

He has more than once lamented how, due to rising costs and other factors, few children today experience the beauty of the Catholic faith as conveyed by Catholic schools.

One of the important functions of good Catholic schools in our times is, to quote from another talk by Pope Francis, to prevent “these ideological colonizations, that poison the soul and the family.” We can expect additional comments on the family and education this month, when the pope will issue an apostolic exhortation concerning last fall’s Synod on the Family.

This is especially important today, when in the United States and Europe alike, so-called Catholic universities that are in fact unfaithful to the teachings of the Catholic Church have for decades now caused confusion to the faithful and, in many cases, even harmed their children’s faith.

In my opinion, the only true Catholic universities now in this country are those to be found in the college guide prepared by the Cardinal Newman Society. (Full disclosure: I serve on the board of this wonderful institution.) Even though I am an Ivy Leaguer myself, I’ve made a point of encouraging parents to send their children to one of these truly Catholic institutions.

After all, good formation is crucially important, particularly in the undergraduate years when many young people first experience living away from home and encounter great temptations, both moral and intellectual, to abandon the faith of their fathers. Unfortunately, many nominally Catholic institutions do very little, if anything, to shield their students from moral temptations, and often even seem to promote intellectual temptations against the faith through non-Catholic and heterodox faculty, and speaker programs.

Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California
Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California

If, however, Catholic students receive solid formation and support in living a Catholic life throughout their undergraduate years, they will be much better prepared to proceed (if God has called them to a career requiring graduate work) to make it through graduate school with their faith intact, even at the top secular programs. Having received a solid foundation in their college years, young Catholic adults can grow in wisdom and prepare themselves for marriage or perhaps another vocation.

For many families, a college education at a pricey private institution will not be feasible anyway. Many parents cannot afford it, and view it as imprudent to allow their children to assume tens of thousands of dollars of student loans in the process of getting an education. For those who are looking at state and local institutions of higher learning for their children, it will be crucial to locate one with a vibrant and faithful Newman Center or other Catholic student center, or if possible a local branch of FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students).

For Catholic students on non-Catholic campuses, this can make the difference between a dormant or dying Catholic faith and a living, mature, and buoyant one.

All recent popes, including St. John Paul the Great, have talked about the importance of Catholic education at all levels, from elementary school to high school to the university. In speaking of the formation of the faithful, St. John Paul wrote in Christifideles Laici: “The fundamental objective of the formation of the lay faithful is an ever-clearer discovery of one’s vocation and the ever-greater willingness to live so as to fulfill one’s mission.”

To that end, we need to grow in knowledge of the Catholic faith and the principles of morality. Roman pontiffs from the 1800s on have insisted strongly on the necessity for catechesis in all its variety, starting with small children being taught the basics of Catholic prayer and worship from their parents and – let’s hope – continuing through good grammar and high schools to deepen and reinforce that initial introduction to Christ and his Church.

Not too many weeks from now Catholic young people and their parents will be making decisions about where their next step lies as they choose which high school or college to attend next year.

St. John Paul II tells us that during all stages of life (childhood, youth, adulthood) and all circumstances of life (health or sickness; blue-collar or white-collar workers; married or unmarried), laymen and women are called to participate in the life of the Church. In order to prepare them to live their life fully in the middle of the world, we need to provide them with solid formation.

It is up to mothers and fathers to make that primary effort both explicitly and implicitly, by how they live their lives. If the parents have sought sound spiritual formation for themselves and attended well to the spiritual formation of their children, those children will be able by their knowledge, their example, their friendship to evangelize the world around them and contribute in their own families to the growth of the Church.

Fr. C. John McCloskey (1953-2023) was a Church historian and Non-Resident Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute.