Why Catholic Education Matters

As we enter Catholic schools week it’s fitting to reflect on the magnitude Catholic education has in molding a just society. From all levels – elementary, middle, high-school, and college Catholic education strives for excellence in cultivating the intellectual, spiritual, and moral advancement so one can become closer to the person God made them. Scads of reports have unpacked the plethora of fruit from Catholic schools. Just to name a few – Catholic school students are more likely to pray, attend church more often, retain a Catholic identity as an adult, and volunteer more. Students in Catholic schools typically demonstrate higher academic achievement than their public school peers. According to a comprehensive analysis, Catholic school students are less likely to have their marriages end in divorce, vote more often, and for what it’s worth, they also earn more money throughout their life.

What drives these results are instilling character, self-discipline to allow students to make the right moral and intellectual choices. Catholic schools also provide the students the freedom to explore aspects of the world not found in state-mandated lessons. But most importantly, Catholic education incorporates a sense of the Divine into every aspect of the curriculum. 

In the Catholic setting, faith shapes the curriculum, not by artificially trying to make the content Catholic, but by uniting all subjects within a Catholic worldview. One example of this can be found in Stratford Caldecott’s Beauty for Truth’s Sake, in which he demonstrates that the logical-mathematical structure of the world naturally flows from God’s economy of creation. Another example can be found in Simon Weil’s relation of mathematics to prayer, which shows how arduous studies affect the soul in a way that heightens the spiritual life.

The great works of art and literature, the efficiency of the sciences, and the queen of all sciences—theology—come together in one rigorous system of education. Under the stewardship of Catholic education, the best in mathematics and science are shown to point us to God rather than random clumps of matter stimulated by sensations. 

In an age when society and so many of its college campuses are marked by nihilism and moral relativism, the Catholic college unashamedly sustains the Truth of Christ (Rom 1:16, 2 Tm 1:8). The Catholic college devotes itself to the teaching of what is true, not false; to what is honorable, not corrupt; to what is pure, not pornographic; to what is gracious, not what is depraved (cf. Phil 4:8).  As the Psalm has it: “I will not set before my eyes anything that is base” (101:3; cf. Is 33:15).

The Catholic intellectual tradition is built on some of the greatest minds that have heightened man’s place in the world and contributed to the advancement of Western Civilization through art, music, literature, philosophy, and science. Here, we see that authentic Catholic teaching enriches every subject for it draws out the bigger aspect of God’s design and the human trajectory towards Divine landmarks. 

Whereas public school trains a child what to think, Catholic education is centered on training the child how to think. In today’s cultural landscape where short, expressive messages are cleverly marketed to the youth, training one to become a critical thinker is of the utmost importance. As a critical thinker one stands free from outside manipulation. He can grasp concepts better and draw logically based conclusions that will make him well-rounded and ascend closer to the truth. Rather, than recite vague talking points, a critical thinker can answer the all-important question of the philosopher – “How did you come to that conclusion?”

On paper, Catholic education appears impressive. Yet, Catholic schools must refrain from swimming with the currents of the world. Christ’s teaching consistently veered in the reverse direction of the popular views of the world. This notion is laid out quite clearly in the writings of the saints and the prophets. St. Paul said, “the wisdom of the world is folly to God” (1 Cor. 3:19) and reminded early Christians, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world” (Romans 12:2, see also James 1:27, 4:4, Hebrews 9:14, Col. 3:1-2,5, Eph. 1:1-3, 1 John 2: 14-17, 5:19).

As well, Jesus made a sharp distinction between Him, his followers, and the ideas of the world by his following statement:

“I have given them your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do pray that you should take them out of the world, but that you should keep them from the evil one. They are not of this world even as I am not of it”(John 17: 14-16, cf. John 15:19, 2:15, 18:36).

Put bluntly, Catholics are supposed to be a separated people; a people elect and married to God through Christ’s Church. Catholic education, therefore, as an extension of our theology, is meant to be a unique direction in the world—separate and distinct from the winds of modern Babylon. Here, Catholic education nobly endures like a solid rock that remains steadfast as the gusty winds of the secular culture attempt to erode everything around it. 

Given this, Catholic schools must resist the temptation to get caught up in the hot-button political flavors of the month. Political correctness has run amok in secular universities the last thirty years, and it is now lurking in the shadows of Catholic education. Catholic schools must not take the bait of strictly viewing people as belonging to an identity group that is labeled either as an “oppressor” or “oppressed.” Rather, she must regard people under the rightly-ordered banner of children of God created in His image and likeness. Instead of bowing down to the secular view that the truth is “relative” to the person, Catholic schools must uphold that truth is objective and discussion about the truth (or free speech in general) can’t be muted merely because someone is “offended” when a truth claim cuts in the opposite direction of what they want to be true. Catholic schools must also continue to uphold the dignity of all lives from conception to natural death. Articulating that God created man and woman instead of a random, unguided process that can be changed into whatever one’s feelings determine. Our education must affirm the sanctity of life, that the human body is sacred, not merely a lump of evolved cells that can be manipulated, and see the dignity of each person – regardless of their socio-economic status. 

As Thomas Carroll, superintendent of schools in the Archdiocese of Boston declared, “Our culture is under attack, our values are eroded and our faith is mocked. We must restore our Catholic schools to be a force for good amid a broader cultural decline.” 

This broader cultural decline Carroll alludes to has subtly seeped into the faith. The sociologist Christian Smith notes, from his extensive research that “we cannot report that Catholic schooling and youth group participation have robust effects on emerging adult faith and practice.”

It is obvious that Catholic education numbers have been sliding into a free-fall. As Smith further reports: “Between 1964 and 1984, 40 percent of American Catholic high schools and 27 percent of Catholic elementary schools closed their doors” In the 1960s Catholic schools had enrolled over six million students with just 1.6 million now. 

Despite these depressing numbers, there is reason to be optimistic. There has been an uptick in Catholic school enrollments across the nation over the last two years. Swaths of non-Catholics are entering into the Catholic education land. Given the increase in non-practicing Catholics, it might be appealing to bracket the heavy Catholic elements and go “Catholic Lite ” to keep the enrollment numbers humming. But, to do so would strip away the Catholic identity of that school and simultaneously settle for a mediocre education. As Catholic professor Jared Staudt states,  “The Catholic faith must be the heart and soul of the school, not an add on. A few accidental elements, however important they may be, are not enough to make a school Catholic.” Staudt goes on to articulates how this “Catholic Lite” approach is detrimental to the faith.

Archbishop Michael Miller, in The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools, expresses this point well:

“If Catholic schools are to be true to their identity, they should try to suffuse their environment with this delight in the sacramental. Therefore they should express physically and visibly the external signs of Catholic culture through images, signs, symbols, icons, and other objects of traditional devotion.”

As Aristotle alluded, education is all about creating the right images so that the correct associations and judgments can be made about the images. How this concept applies in Catholic schools is that children are presented with sacred images at a young age which molds their concept of what is beautiful, what is of Divine essence, and what is not. In this setting, they grasp that beauty is ordered and attached to meaning all the while they are trained that ugliness is a series of jumbled images that leaves one confused. From images flow ideas – either good or bad. This training of concepts allows children to swiftly root out disordered ideas and make sound choices as they are presented with competing views and vague, emotionally laced phrases throughout their life.

Therefore, a healthy education must incorporate a unity of sacred images in the home and school. It would end up confusing kids if they witness classical images at school, but modernists images at the home – and vice versa. The model at the Catholic school puts the family as a central component for Catholic teaching declares that the family is the building block of society. This partnership approach of family and school is corroborated by a recent study that found a link between invested parents and successful students. Here, the family and the school are placed on the same team in molding the child as a follower of Christ and not a follower of the world.

Catholic schools strive for excellence in the formation of the whole person – which encompasses developing the virtues as well as sharpening the intellect by transmitting natural law (a Catholic staple) into the person. While Catholic schools hold a high-bar for human understanding and living, we must understand rather than attempt to lower the bar to the secular version, a high-bar eloquently demonstrates the value of the human person. While holding one to a higher level and putting on a heavier workload might seem taxing, this ascent to develop a virtuous and knowledgeable character illuminates joy in Catholicism. That is, to know and to live this faith, while challenging, is, in the end joyful.

Christ instituted this Church and through His Sacraments, we are imbued with His life and salvation. Through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, children learn that no matter how many stumbles we make along the way, they receive forgiveness and a new beginning. This concept, in turn, molds children to become persistent in getting up whenever they have failed and eventually gives them the endurance to handle life’s challenges with relative ease

Children’s deep moral questions cannot be addressed on social media or even at politically correct state-run schools. Rather, they are answered using sound reason and logic derived from natural law and Divine revelation. Catholic education stands as a helpful guide to lovingly shape children into the people God created them to be. Children are not only the future of the Church, after the Sacrament of Confirmation, they become the active member of the Church that is called to go out to advance the Gospel to all who will listen. A sturdy Catholic education places the Church on fertile soil in which her message is advanced and becomes a beacon of hope during these trying times.

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