The Untapped Potential of Catholic Schools Week

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s the 41st annual National Catholic Schools Week. Sponsored by the National Catholic Education Association, Catholic Schools Week typically consists of open houses, themed logos, regional “all schools” Masses, and a host of other activities for families and parishes involved with Catholic schools. Harmless enough, right? Fun for students, good for boosting enrollment, and no burden on someone without school-age children, like myself. But that’s the problem. Catholic Schools Week is so inoffensive, so harmless that it misses the mark on inspiring all of us to seriously consider how not merely schools, but education becomes truly Catholic—how the Gospel could or should permeate the cultural realities of education in the United States, in the twenty-first century. Amidst the self-congratulation, there’s no challenge or call to examine our current situation in order to grasp a fuller vision of Catholic education. Few of us leave Catholic Schools Week experiencing a greater conviction that to follow Jesus Christ as a disciple and love others as part of the Church means something for education in the United States.

For Catholic Schools Week to live up to its full potential, the first step is to enlarge the vision. Limiting the notion of “Catholic schools” to brick-and-mortar schools sponsored by Catholic parishes, dioceses, or independent organizations is unfortunate. Catholic education also includes parishes that tutor or provide extra-curricular activities to public school students, home school cooperatives and enrichment programs organized or hosted by Catholic parishes, service or work-based programs designed to educate, and more. All of these could fall within a broad understanding of a “Catholic school” and “Catholic education” as described in the Code of Canon Law.

Enlarging the vision of Catholic Schools Week creates the space for parishes, dioceses, religious communities, lay apostolate, and Catholic nonprofit organizations to first establish what the needs for and goals of a truly Catholic education in their particular setting are. What’s essential? What’s unique? In Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Saint Pope John Paul II described the “privileged task” of a Catholic University as unifying “the search for truth, and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth.” This is a starting point. It is up to each parish or community to then examine the needs and realities of their local environment. In what ways does the “fount of truth” most need to be conveyed? What students are most at-risk for missing out on this unity? What resources does the parish have that are especially well suited or could be uniquely leveraged for the specific tasks at hand? Only after establishing such a vision should the community leaders look to the “how.” The answer might be the status quo of a typical brick-and-mortar “Catholic school.” But, maybe not. Maybe the resources at hand are best used in a regional effort, a complementary program for public schools, a private-public partnership, an ecumenical effort, an embrace of subsidiary through home school cooperatives, a deliberate attempt to reach unbaptized or non-practicing Christian students, etc.

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A second key step in realizing the full potential of Catholic Schools Week is to use it as a catalyst for closer, respectful critique and examination of what may not be working as intended. For example, Therese Mueller (b. 1905), a German sociologist who immigrated to the U.S. with her husband after Hitler’s rise, expressed concern in the post-war era:

with parents who assumed that they need not bother with religious instruction of children, as this was the job of priests and nuns attached to a well-oiled system of Catholic schools…. She saw this as leading to indifference on the part of parents [who] relinquished to the Catholic school as many as possible of their parental rights and duties. ‘They discontinued family morning prayer: for did not the children pray in school? They no longer discussed or talked of religious problems at home: what was the need, since the priest or sisters were teaching in school whatever the children had to know?’

Similarly, in 1964, Mary Perkins Ryan wrote Are Parochial Schools the Answer? An exploration of the role of Catholic schools in teaching religion, with regards to financial burdens placed on a parish, and impact on education that benefits the entire community. These faithful critiques are not simply about saying “no” to Catholic schools, but examining how they fit into changing cultural contexts. Today we too can ask about the financial impact of Catholic schools on the mission of the Church, how different types of tuition models impact our evangelization and social justice concerns through affordability and accessibility, and what non-financial resources (i.e. especially unused infrastructure) can be repurposed in a new way to support the vision of Catholic schooling—albeit in a form unimaginable to our predecessors (i.e. a former Episcopal parish property becoming a nonprofit school setting).

We can also ask about the impact of Catholic schools on the evangelization of students. In support of Catholic Schools Week, the National Catholic Education Association’s website offers data “snaps” to inform stakeholders about the importance of Catholic schools. Yet, none of the “snaps” provides any insight into the evangelistic role of Catholic education, if conditions are such that students are being invited and responding to personal relationship with Jesus Christ, if the search for unity of truth, beauty, and the ultimate “fount of truth” is yielding any fruit. Is Catholic education forming disciples? It is hard to separate correlation from causality. Studies from CARA and Cardus Education that identify correlation, examined in the context of books such as Christian Smith’s Soul Searching, Souls in Transition, or Young Catholic America, or David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me or unChristian that can provide clues to causality provide insights local communities can use to better investigate the relationship between participation in Catholic education and formation as a disciple of Jesus Christ in their local settings. Catholic Schools Week can and should be a catalyst for lectures, forums, and discussions probing these challenging issues.

Third and finally, Catholic Schools Week can reach its full potential by attending to the social justice implications of educational decisions, policies, and actions of local parishes and Catholic communities. In our current status quo, most children in the U.S. will not attend a typical, brick-and-mortar “Catholic school.” But full-time attendance is not the only potential evangelizing impact of the Catholic schools movement. Can a Catholic school evangelize a neighborhood? How can Catholic disciples be involved in non-Catholic, predominantly public schools to fulfill our Gospel mandate? According to a Barna Education survey, 95 percent of Protestant pastors and nearly 80 percent of Christians across all denominations believe Christians should be involved with helping public schools. As Dominican Sister John Mary Fleming, the executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Catholic Education explained in a January 2014 interview:

A Catholic philosophy of education deals with the essence of the human person as a child of God who is made in the image of God. One of the ends or goals of Catholic education is to teach children to live well here and now so that they can live with God in eternity. That means engaging culture and society in a specifically Christian way that contributes to the general welfare of society.

Finding local ways to take action to contribute to the general welfare of society through a Catholic vision of education—this is certainly part of the challenge of discipleship placed before each of us this week.

The answer is not to tear down “Catholic Schools Week 2015” banners and cancel open houses. There’s nothing wrong with the uplifting, encouraging, and pragmatically promotional aspects of Catholic Schools Week. But there’s a lot that we’re currently missing during this largest and post prominent week of the year for Catholic schools. As the Second Vatican Council explained, “while earthly progress must be carefully distinguished from the growth of Christ’s kingdom,” what “contribute[s] to the better ordering of human society … is of vital concern to the Kingdom of God” (Gaudium et Spes §39). Catholic schools and education undoubtedly contribute to this better ordering of human society. The call to faithful discipleship in Jesus Christ demands that we open ourselves to conversion in this area, thinking and acting with a wider, more Gospel-centered vision for Catholic Schools Week and beyond.

Editor’s note: The image above titled “School is Out” was painted by Elizabeth Forbes in 1889.


  • Colleen R. Vermeulen

    Colleen R. Vermeulen is a part-time professor of theology and military leadership (not at the same time), a part-time graduate student, a volunteer catechist, and full-time wife and mother of a young toddler in Ypsilanti, Michigan. She earned her Master’s degree in Divinity from the University of Notre Dame in 2013 and blogs regularly at Practical Catholic Evangelization.

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