Catholic Schools Revolution?


Something funny happened at the end of last week’s Catholic Schools Week. As Elizabeth Scalia describes it, Catholic bloggers began demanding Revolution!

The crux of the debate began with another Patheos blogger, Joanne McPortland, saying that dioceses should be catechizing adults, not children. It’s an argument that some have made for years, such as Steve Kellmeyer, but is catching on again.

Catholic Schools Week 2012The debate that ensued goes to some fundamental questions about what Catholic education is and should be. What, exactly, are the Catholic Schools that we are called to celebrate every year?

Most folks (and most dioceses) seem to think of those Catholic Schools as simply the places that Catholic kids go to every weekday morning:  St. Mary’s parish school or the Archdiocese’s high school.

But is that entirely correct? These are certainly one kind of Catholic school.  Institutional Catholic schools arose from parishes and dioceses amidst anti-Catholic Protestant government schools over 100 years ago. They flourished for decades, have recently come to face serious challenges, and are now the subject of extensive efforts to save them.

As a matter of first principles, however, parents are the primary educators of their children. The sacrament of marriage infuses grace into natural parental responsibility, making it the primary means by which the faithful are reared and catechized.

Catholic parental education is, in fact, “the Church” educating. Families are not just members of the Church, they are the Church. The cultural obstacles Catholics face are very different than the problems from 150 years ago, and more than ever they require parental primacy in Catholic education of their children.

Priests, pastors, dioceses and their institutions certainly play a role in Catholic education. The Church’s mission is to “go and teach.” But Church documents themselves emphasize that the pastors’ role is primarily to teach adults. By extension, the pastors’ role in child education is fundamentally one of helping, guiding and forming parents to fulfill their primary educational responsibilities.

For many parents, the pastors’ helping role might well be fulfilled by a parish-run institutional school. But that is accidental to what Catholic schools are. Catholic schools are the variety of ways Catholic parents pursue their sacramental grace of providing Catholic education.

That might be the parish school, but it might also be homeschooling, parent-organized schools, a hybrid of these efforts, or other creative forms, if they are infused with the Catholic faith, truth, goodness and beauty.

As the “Revolution” debate shows, this fundamental issue affects the viability of Catholic education and evangelization in our century.

Viewing “Catholic Schools” as only the bricks and mortar schools run by parishes turns the roles of pastors and parents upside down: from pastors helping parents fulfill their primary responsibility, to pastors possessing that responsibility and parents conforming to it. In turn, that attitude sends an implied message to parents that Catholic education isn’t really their thing, either for their children or for themselves.

God’s plan to give parents primary responsibility for child-education and pastors primary responsibility for adult-education is neither quaint nor arbitrary.  If laity and clergy begin to think about “Catholic Schools” this way, it will free the Church to evangelize and disciple Catholics using the increasing variety of educational means that are effective and available.

How might a “parent-first” approach to Catholic education look like? Here are a couple of simplistic examples. A parish school might transition to offer classes a la carte to Catholic children. It might prioritize parish facilities for use by parent-run cooperative education.  It might offer tangible resources to encourage and assist homeschooling. When the parish lets parish school students receive First Communion without also taking CCD, it might do the same for homeschooled Catholic children–who also, after all, attend a Catholic School.

A shift in outlook and resources about the nature of Catholic schooling will be difficult. Some diocesan educators might see such efforts as “competition” for Catholic schools. That attitude is precisely backwards. Parent-provided Catholic educational methods are Catholic schools, whether in an institutionally run parish school, at home, or otherwise. The role of the Church is not to declare that only parishes run “Catholic Schools.” It is to enable God’s plan for parental primacy in Catholic education of their children, which use a variety of educational methods.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of


About Author

Matt Bowman is a pro-life, religious liberties and constitutional law attorney in the Washington, DC area. He graduated from Ave Maria School of Law in 2003 and clerked for several federal judges thereafter. The Bowmans are involved in homeschooling and classical Catholic education and are rabid fans of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Matt is a member of the Knights of Columbus and his local parish.

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