Catholic Schools and the Woke Revolution

Catholic education in America was completely transformed by the cultural upheavals of the late 1960s. In just a few years, Catholic colleges threw out their core curricula, which typically included multiple semesters of philosophy and theology courses for all students and replaced them with a “choose whatever you want” program of studies. At the same time, Catholic high schools and grammar schools replaced solid catechetical instruction in the faith with an amorphous “all religions are the same, faith is all about feeling” approach to Catholicism.

The results have been devastating: for fifty years the Church in America has witnessed a precipitous drop in Mass attendance, vocations, devotion, and basic understanding of the faith. What’s worse, there are no signs that this downward trend will flatten, let alone reverse itself, anytime soon.

Now the 2020 cultural upheavals threaten to make Catholic education indistinguishable from public education. The changes that the Woke Revolution seeks would not upset the structure of Catholic schools as happened fifty years ago. Rather, the Woke Revolution demands changes within existing curricula that would replace whatever is left of Catholic identity and of Catholic social thought with noxious secular ideologies that seek not the Kingdom of God, but the Kingdom of Men and Women at War with their Creator.

By virtue of the gift of faith and 130 years of Catholic social teaching, Catholic schools could offer their students all the intellectual resources necessary to combat societal problems within a highly developed moral framework. To battle the sin of racism, for example the hottest social topic currently Catholics have four sharp weapons to wield: 1) Genesis 1 (we are all made, no matter how we look, in the image and likeness of God); 2) Genesis 2-3 (we all come from the same earth, and are destined to return to it); 3) the parable of the Good Samaritan (serving our neighbor means serving those of other races); and 4) St. Paul’s analogy of the body of Christ: though we have different appearances and vocations, we are all connected as if we were one body, so that “if one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” (1 Cor 12:26)


In other words, the Church offers a vision of unity across races and cultures that terminates in eternal union with God, just as our Lord prayed: “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:22-23)

But instead of offering this beautiful Catholic vision, and then having the hard conversations about racism and discrimination within that context, our schools have instead been peddling secular dogmas to their students that divide peoples and races. The impetus for doing so is often coming from parents, alumni, and donors who demand that schools so indoctrinate their students, or risk public embarrassment and a canceling of desperately needed donations.

In plain English, Catholic schools are being told to get woke or get broke. Out of fear, schools are capitulating.

Take, as one example, the widely practiced “privilege walk” in which students begin standing on a horizontal line, and then step forward according to how much “privilege” they have. In addition, there are school-sponsored conversations about “identity” that, contra Genesis 1-3, elevate ethnicity and appearance as the primary factors of self-understanding, rather than as components within a prior understanding of ourselves as loved children of God. Such activities seek to “solve” racism by intentionally generating hostility between racial groups.

Aside from these more general programming issues, there are curricular incursions. In my children’s parochial school this winter, included among the resources for the fifth grade’s celebration of Black History month (a list that was taken from Google and not generated by the teacher), was the book A is for Activist, which includes “R for Radical Reds,” “T for Trans,” and “Z for Zapatista.” When concerns were raised, the teacher – who may have been unaware of what Google had assembled – promptly removed the book from the list.

Later in February, my son’s fifth-grade teacher had her students read and analyze the rapper Tupac Shakur’s “The Rose That Grew From Concrete.” When questioned, this teacher defended her selection on the grounds that the eight-line poem is an admirable articulation of resiliency.

And these two specific examples are not as dangerous as the incessant cry across the country to transform history lessons into narratives of oppression, and literature classes into expressions of identity politics.

One danger (of many) here is that students buy into this worldview without ever learning –as they ought – that their faith has a more compelling and less divisive way of solving these difficulties. Instead, they learn that the secular world is the only means of salvation, and they will perceive Catholicism as irrelevant to the world’s problems.

The remedy for this precarious situation is for Catholic school administrators, along with supportive parents and teachers, to stare down the secular mob and respond with a clear, Catholic message: “Yes, we hear you on the need to combat racism and promote justice. But we will do so on our terms, according to the teachings of Jesus Christ which have been entrusted to the Catholic Church that sponsors this school. Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. Any program that does not place Him at the center is destined to fail. We will not adopt programs of identity that pit students against each other. No. We will use prayer, sacraments, the Bible, and the Catechism to transform our students into saints. This is the only path to lasting justice.”


*Image: The Good Samaritan by Jacopo Bassano, c. 1562-3 [National Gallery, London]

David G. Bonagura Jr. an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary and is the 2023-2024 Cardinal Newman Society Fellow for Eucharistic Education. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church, and the translator of Jerome’s Tears: Letters to Friends in Mourning.