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.



  • Kevin

    Sorry to say: homeschooling often produces poorly-adjusted children. Just a sad truth.

  • Theresa Lawson

    AMEN! I am a Catholic home schooling Mom of 11. We have been home schooling for 26 years. Long ago, at the beginning of this journey, we experienced first-hand the lack of catechesis in the people who were teaching our children in the Catholic school. So, we withdrew them and educated them ourselves. It forced us to look at our responsibility for their Catholic upbringing, and make substantial changes in our parenting, as well as the crucial importance of handing on our precious Catholic Faith to them. As an RCIA instructor, teaching Catholic teens who have made their Sacraments of Baptism, Reconciliation and Holy Communion, and who now seek Confirmation, I see first-hand what lack of catechesis has done to their families who are poorly formed in the Faith. I agree…adults need good catechesis, so they can pass their Faith onto their children!

  • Nancy Janzen

    We use our CCD classes and the church 3 days a week using them on the other 2 days to remedially educate our adults would be a great thing. Starting with a walk through the Catechism.

  • Sara Muller-Farmer

    My three children went through the Catholic School system with financial help. I realize the expense, but in our case, God always provided.

  • John Fox

    And I’m concerned about the 2nd or 3rd mention of Patheos. That doesn’t sound like a website Catholics should be quoting from.

    • Teep

      Hi John,
      There are myriad ways to have cheap or free Catholic education. One is to have a culture which encourages more men and women to join religious orders. More vocations means more brothers and sisters teaching in schools. Also, another issue is the choice of how parishes and dioceses financially support their schools. If the school at your parish is like mine, it does ok every week at the plate, but not if you ran a per capita comparison with a mega church. It used to be that most parishes nationwide could support their schools on the weekly collection alone. I think that the ownership issue Matt brings up, though, is the crux for all of these and others. It’s our church, not our priests or the people that run the parish offices. How we gonna get more Catholics actively being Catholic and owning the activities their local parish can provide?

  • John Fox

    The problem with Catholic education is the price. I have six wonderful children but we cannot afford to send them to Catholic schools like we would prefer. Multi-student discounts and tiny scholarships are appreciated, but completely insufficient.

    • Elizabeth Crann

      John Fox, the problem is not entirely the price. The problem is also government. Property taxes–especially in those states where property taxes are tied to school taxes– are so prohibitive that one cannot justify paying for Catholic education. But politicians are so beholden to teacher’s unions that they refuse to look at giving tax credits to those using private/catholic schools or creating a voucher program. Government–and their teacher union allies — is the problem. Not the cost of Catholic schools.



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