Catholic education must rely not just on teachers, but witnesses

Much is made these days about reforming Catholic education, specifically of improving academic achievement and Catholic identity in our Catholic schools. Both are in need of improvement. I would argue, however, that we cannot make significant improvement in either of these directly, that is, without addressing more fundamental issues first.

I believe that both academic achievement and Catholic identity can only be significantly improved by addressing foundations which undergird them – foundations which our schools have forgotten or abandoned.

As everyone is aware, our Catholic schools haveSisters in Catholic Education suffered demonstrably with the dwindling number of sisters, brothers, and priests to staff them. Everyone will point to the overwhelming financial difficulties that this loss has occasioned – difficulties in need of innovative solutions. Some will also rightly point to the loss of Catholic identity that has grown in their absence. However, very few seem to have realized that we have also lost an entire philosophy of Catholic education, the very foundations of Catholic education.

We need both a recovery and a renewal in Catholic schools. Recovery points us back, connecting us to our heritage in Catholic schools: to their strength and success in earlier generations. Renewal points us forward, taking that heritage and those strengths, making them pillars of renewal, incorporating true advances of modern education, and listening to the Spirit of the New Evangelization for guidance. This post is about recovery. I will argue that the two pillars of reform are: the recovery of an evangelical call to holiness and the recovery of an authentically Catholic philosophy of education. The latter pillar encompasses the former (in theory, though not in practice).

The foundational principle of an authentic Catholic educational philosophy is that purpose for which Catholic education exists. This purpose is the salvation of the souls of those children in the school’s care, or put alternatively, the evangelical call to holiness of those children. This is the core principle of every vocation to Catholic education, the purpose and mission of every Catholic educator is to extend to those children in our care, with fidelity, integrity, and zeal, the call to a life of holiness.

We can begin to see the need for a recovery of an evangelical call to holiness as we consider what we lost as the number of sisters, brothers, and priests dwindled. They were examples to our students of what it means to give one’s whole life to God, to seek holiness. They had, despite their personal failings, a certain moral authority to call others to Christ by virtue of their vocation – of the sacrifice that they made of their lives by their vows. In other words, we lost the evangelical call to holiness witnessed by their presence. Today’s teachers and administers, lacking the moral authority of vocation, need especially to be seen as persons seeking and witnessing to holiness. Pope Paul VI in Evangelii Nuntiandi states:

[T]he first means of evangelization is the witness of an authentically Christian life, given over to God in a communion that nothing should destroy and at the same time given to one’s neighbor with limitless zeal. … Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” [emphasis mine, 41]

Archbishop Michael Miller, former head of the Congregation for Catholic Schools, articulates this same call for authentic Christian witness in his book The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools. While quoting John Paul II’s Ad Limina address to the bishops of Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, he writes:

Archbishop Miller - leading voice in Catholic educationAs well as fostering a Catholic worldview across the curriculum, even in so-called secular subjects, “if students in Catholic schools are to gain a genuine experience of the Church, the examples of teachers and others responsible for their formation is crucial: the witness of adults in the school community is a vital part of the school’s identity.”  … [I]f teachers fail to model fidelity to the truth and virtuous behavior, then even the best of curricula cannot successfully embody a Catholic school’s distinctive ethos.” [emphasis mine, 58]

In an address to the Solidarity Association on September 14, 2005, Archbishop Miller goes further and asserts:

[I]t is, I believe, a serious mistake to be anything other than “rigorists” about the personnel hired. … Principals, pastors, trustees and parents share, therefore, in the serious duty of hiring teachers who meet the standards of doctrine and integrity of life essential to maintaining and advancing a school’s Catholic identity. We need teachers with a clear and precise understanding of the specific nature and role of Catholic education. The careful hiring of men and women whoenthusiastically endorse a Catholic ethos is, I would maintain, the primary way to foster a school’s catholicity. [emphasis mine]


Bishop Vasa's reform in Catholic educationYet, we have a dearth of educators witnessing to an authentically Christian life with fidelity, integrity, and zeal. We have far too many educators who simply have a job, or career, as a teacher or administrator at a Catholic school. Too many do not view themselves as evangelists to the young. The sisters, brothers, and priests did.  One need only examine the recent brouhaha with the Catholic educators in the flock of Bishop Vasa. Bishop Vasa, in an effort to ensure authentic Catholic education in his diocesan schools, asked all teachers to sign an oath of fidelity to the Church. There was such an outcry that Vasa was forced to relent.

If these teachers were faithful witnesses to the gospel as taught by the Catholic Church they would have signed joyfully. We must reverse this by hiring educators who will enthusiastically and joyfully witness to the Gospel in word and in deed.  Pastors, especially, must have care to consider an administrator’s faith life, fidelity to truth, and zeal for evangelization, as more important than certificates and licenses bestowed by the state or about degrees granted by colleges, whether they be state schools or private.

Notice, in Archbishop Miller’s address, that he asserts the need for enthusiastic witnesses as the primary way to foster Catholic identity.  Bishops, pastors, and other influential Catholic educators have for years now preached the need to restore Catholic identity and culture in our Catholic schools.  Modest, and I would argue, superficial improvements have been made in this regard. However, Catholic identity is not something that can be restored by inserting a few Catholic identity programs. Special programs are not precluded, but Catholic identity is formed first, and foremost, by the faithful witness of the school’s teachers and administrators and, then, by a school culture which springs up naturally and spontaneously in schools which have an authentic Catholic philosophy of education inspiring them.

Note, also, Archbishop Miller’s call for educators who have a “clear and precise understanding of the specific nature and role of education.”  Archbishop Miller sees the need for a firm understanding of Catholic educational principles, of a Catholic educational philosophy – the second pillar of reform.

One could make the case, even despite the loss of religious presence in our schools, that had the laity who filled the void been well-formed in the Catholic educational philosophy of the Church’s tradition, we may have come through these years with vibrant, flourishing, and authentic Catholic schools. In their religious orders the sisters and brothers were trained to be teachers and passed on, from one to another, a specifically and authentically Catholic educational philosophy. As their numbers dwindled, they were replaced by teachers and administrators who did not receive the specific training that they did. Instead, new teachers and administrators were trained at secular universities (or even Catholic ones, now patterned after the secular) where progressive educational ideas flourished.

The vast majority of Catholic school teachers today have not learned, and have little exposure to, the history of Catholic schools, the philosophy of education particular to Catholic schools, which educational theories, ideas, and fads are contrary to Catholic principles, what the saints have to say about education, how to incorporate a Catholic world-view into “secular” subjects, how to properly form hearts and minds in Christ, and a whole host of topics that require examination through the lens of Faith and the teaching of the Church. How many Catholic educators can clearly articulate a Catholic philosophy of education – beyond the vague (albeit true) “educating the whole child?”  Moreover, how many, not knowing a Catholic philosophy of education, promote ideas which are contrary to a Catholic understanding of the proper formation of the whole person?  The Church’s heritage and tradition on education has been neglected, forgotten, and in need of recovery.

The content of this recovery is vast and will be the topic of many posts to come. Decades ago large volumes were produced to explain a Catholic philosophy of education. Virtually none exist today, when we are most distant from our educational roots and most in need of true guidance amid the progressive educational theories and fads in circulation.  I hope you will be a partner in recovering an authentically Catholic philosophy of education.

David Boyd is editor of the Catholic Educator blog. He lives in La Crosse, Wis.



  • Carole

    I wonder if you have any thoughts on the challenge of discipline, and how that can complicate the delivery of the Gospel? I used to teach high school, with every intention of evangelizing my students–but I found the challenge of discipline so overwhelming that it really eclipsed my efforts to introduce them to Jesus effectively.

    • http://theCatholicEducator.Com David Boyd

      It seems to me that the lack of discipline (that is, self-discipline – see below for a link to an article) already implies either a lack of Catholic culture and identity in the school or a lack of specific students’ integration into that culture. Where there is a lack of an ordered, disciplined culture, and where staff fails to constantly witness to the faith, then passing on the faith can indeed be a challenge. I’ve been in that situation. Don’t overlook the good that your personal interaction has with students. While one teacher, or even a few, won’t change the culture of a school, you can impact those students who hear you. And when they don’t appear to hear, they often do and keep the message with them until they are ready to “hear” it. Thus, often people come back to the Church after leaving it in their youth.

  • Slats

    I read that article to which you linked about Bishop Vasa, and it seems to me that your characterization of it isn’t fair to him. Looks to me like he’s finding an effective way to do what must be done.

    • http://theCatholicEducator.Com David Boyd

      Slats, I did not mean to detract the good bishop. His move to readdress the issue may indeed be the wisest course. My point was not about Bishop Vasa or his actions, but about the reaction of his flock. Those who reacted negatively either do not understand Church teaching on a variety of issues, or do not see themselves as witnesses to those truths, or both.

  • Teep Schlachter

    Mr. Boyd,
    Your post is right on. As one who came from outside the current K12 state of affairs and am now in it, there are so many systemic issues to overcome. The easiest first step has, so far, been to hire honest Catholics. Frustrating to not be able to find licensed teachers with a good background in western history, let alone church history. It’s getting better, though, with more Catholic liberal arts colleges training deeply educated men and women.

    • http://theCatholicEducator.Com David Boyd

      I suggest that you not be concerned with finding licensed teachers. For high school (which I assume you are speaking if), hire intelligent, faithful, and energetic witnesses who know their field VERY well. Most states do not require Catholic teachers to be licensed. You will have to find ways to reassure people that the person you have hired will do an excellent job despite not being licensed.

  • Matthew Mehan

    I would love to talk with you sometime, Mr. Boyd.

    Part of developing “an authentically Catholic philosophy of education” will require developing a “philosophy of education” simply.

    That is, I would be very worried if someone tried to develop a theory of Catholic education without understanding education simply. Or, put another way, an authentically Catholic philosophy of education requires a great deal of philosophy as well as theology, from the top down (Revelation) and the bottom up (nature/reason).

    • http://theCatholicEducator.Com David Boyd

      Mr. Mehan, I agree completely. You can reach me at the email address on the “About Me” page of my blog:



Receive our updates via email.