Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Catholic Identity in Our Catholic Schools

This past week was a severely shortened Catholic Schools Week, an annual celebration of the benefits of Catholic education in the United Staes. Celebrating Catholic schools can be a touchy subject because a) some parents at any parish are not able to afford to send their kids to Catholic Schools and b) some parishoners at most parishes are administrators or teachers in public schools, and work their tails off for their kids. I've thought recently that, if I weren't a priest, I'd like to at least try to teach for a few years in an inner-city public school because that is definitely mission territory.

So, while celebrating the great work that our public schools do, the Church does take a week to acknowledge the special importance of Catholic schools in the history of our country. Not every country's Catholicism is intertwined with education like ours is, but for many reasons Catholicism, to those inside and outside the Faith in this country, is synonymous with education.

For years, the Catholic education system in the U.S. has mirrored the decline of the larger Church's catechetical ineffectiveness, with stories of schools with students authentically learning the Faith being extremely sparse, especially from the 1970's onward. The push now is towards a reclaiming of "Catholic Identity" and trying to recapture the sense in our Catholic schools that the primary function of said schools is not standardized test success or SAT scores but a successful passing on of (and inspiring its students to put into practice) the teachings of the Faith (the other scores are important too, but it is the way in which these goals have been prioritized in the past that is being revisited).

At Cardinal Ritter High School we have been spending this year trying to look at our Catholic identity and see what concrete steps can be taken to improve it. Some of that involves statues/images/prayers etc., but we're also trying to step back and look for ways that might not come to mind immediately. Some of the things we're looking at:
1) Something you hear at every Catholic education talk is the inevitable "in the 1950's our schools were full of priests and nuns, and they aren't there anymore." I've heard that a ton, but no one has ever really talked about a solution to that. One of things that I've specifically been working at is to try and bring along our lay faculty to a place of greater awareness in terms of ways they can bring Catholicism into their classrooms. There are "Catholic-friendly" curriculums out there which do a great job of bringing the faith into English and science and history courses, but most Catholic Schools are not in a position to overhaul their entire curriculum. I've been working with our departments one at a time trying to provide short and concise articles and essays for our teachers that talk about ways to incorporate the faith into their classes without an overhaul. For example, with the science department I've provided some info on what ACTUALLY happened with Galileo, some info on fantastic Catholic scientists who have played a key role in science's development, some essays on the TRUE relationship between the Church and science, including Pope Benedict, who has written voluminously on this subject. I've given the government teachers some Catholic takes on democracy, history teachers have received a more accurate description of some of the persecution of the Church during the French Revolution and a fairer read on the Crusades and the Inquisition than what most western civ. textbooks provide. English teachers were provided with some topics such as how Shakespeare was likely a Catholic and I also provided them with some Catholic authors so that they can consider incorporating them into their reading.

This process has been very informative for me and has born a lot of fruit already amongst our faculty. The process has let the faculty know that they can come to me with questions or bring me into their classes at any time.

2) Another thing we're doing is piloting a program that will provide us with feedback in terms of our Catholic identity and offer suggestions for ways to improve that identity.

3) With regards to the actual theology curriculum, the Bishops have taken a very active role in reform, and have actually provided publishers with a very thorough list of what each high school course should contain. At Ritter, our textbooks meet the standards the Bishops have provided, and we were one of the first high schools in the area to overhaul our theology textbooks having done the switch this past Summer.

Some see this focus on Catholic Identity as a move to be more exclusive of other faith backgrounds, however I find it interesting that some of my best and most interested students are non-Catholics, while some of my worst are cradle Catholics. I believe that increasing the Catholic identity of our schools will be a good thing for all people involved. I pray that our schools across the country will work to continue to strengthen our Catholic identity so that we are instructing children of all faiths who are more effectively entering the world able to dialogue and actually explain the tenants of the faith to the larger culture.

Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, patron saint of Catholic schools,...pray for us!


  1. "With regards to the actual theology curriculum, the Bishops have taken a very active role in reform, and have actually provided publishers with a very thorough list of what each high school course should contain."

    I'm sorry, Fr. Hollowell, but, while the Bishops' list is extensive, I do not believe it can be called "thorough."

    One particularly glaring omission is the requirement to teach that true Faith requires one to accept all the teachings of the Church. As CCC 1814 says,

    “Faith is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself …”

    This one omission opens wide the door to "Cafeteria Catholicism" and helps perpetuate, in your words, the "Church's catechetical ineffectiveness, with stories of schools with students authentically learning the Faith being extremely sparse, especially from the 1970's onward."

    There is more on this here.

    - Mike in Rochester, NY

  2. Hi Father,
    Excellent ideas and insights especially the part about bringing the lay teachers on board. In the 80's at my Catholic high school, lay teachers were openly promoting premarital sex and contraception during their lectures. It is great that some of this is going to be cleaned up.

  3. Father Hollowell, I read and enjoy your blog very much-if I could say something meaningful or helpful I would-just know that at least one person (and I suspect quite a few more) agree with what you say and strive to do the right thing on a daily basis.

  4. Mike,

    I looked at your blog and what you are referring to is not the same thing I am referring to. The Bishops do have a conformity process for ALL books to be used catechetically, but my comments are referring to the "Doctrinal Elements of a Curriculum Framework". This document deals much more in depth with what needs to be present in each course for high school theology and compared to what I had last year (a text book from Ave Maria Press that was so bad it was literally unusable) I am very excited about the progress the Bishops are making.

    A quick search of the word "faith" in the "Doctrinal Elements" document shows to me that the proper understanding of the theological virtue "FAITH" is present in the framework.

    I don't work enough with the document you reference to critique the Bishops' efforts on catechetical conformity, but in my work in high schools the "Doctrinal Elements" Document is a MOST WELCOME upgrade. The "Doctrinal Elements" document for high schools can be accessed here: http://www.usccb.org/education/framework.pdf

  5. Fr. Hollowell,
    Thanks for your thoughts on this and for taking the issue on in practice. I've been teaching in Catholic high schools for 17 years and have found, among the factors you mentioned, that the biggest factor in Catholic identity is the attitude of the families who apply for enrollment. The school can talk all it wants about how to create a more Catholic climate, but if the families that make up the school don't see Catholic identity as a priority, creating it and holding on to it are almost impossible. If half the families attending the school don't go to Mass or Confession, have never catechized their kids, and only tolerate religion as a necessary evil, the school will be perpetually digging itself out of a hole. Maintaining solid Catholic identity is best promoted at the front end in hiring and enrollment. I've written about a lot of these issues in my blog: catholicsquare.wordpress.com if you'd like to visit.

  6. Father Hollowell,

    Thanks for you insights on Catholic education and your ministry as a priest in Archdiocese of Indianapolis. Many educators see Catholic Identity as just theology instruction, but you are correct in asserting that it about creating an atmosphere whereby every aspect of the education process reflects the Catholic identity of the school. I manage the Catholic High School Honor Roll Program for the Cardinal Newman Society and am interested in some of the ideas that you have expressed.


    Bob Laird
    Director of Programs, Cardinal Newman Society