The Rationale for Catholic Schools

“The days have come. . . in which the school is more necessary than the church.” Does that statement startle you? Who could say that? The answer is that it did indeed startle people the first time it was said – and over 150 years ago – by Archbishop John J. Hughes of New York. In many ways, it was his insight and foresight that launched the Catholic community in America on an endeavor unparalleled in the history of the Church. Archbishop Hughes felt that if he lost the children, there would be little hope for the future of the Church in this country.

The First Provincial Council of Baltimore in 1829 asserted: “We judge it absolutely necessary that schools be established in which the young may be taught the principles of faith and morality, while being instructed in letters.” The bishops of the nation made their judgment a matter of law in 1884 at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore: “We decide and decree that near each church, where it does not exist, a parish school is to be erected within two years of the promulgation of this Council.”

The rationale behind this stringent injunction was explained clearly by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical, Divini Illius Magistri (On the Christian Education of Youth): “The so-called ‘neutral’school from which religion is excluded, is contrary to the fundamental principles of education. Such a school moreover cannot exist in practice; it is bound to become irreligious.”

The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council dealt with Catholic education extensively as they followed the trajectory of Church teaching to that point and contributed to its development as well. Several comments bear notice from their Declaration on Christian Education:

The Church’s involvement in the field of education is demonstrated especially by the Catholic school. . . . Therefore, since it can contribute so substantially to fulfilling the mission of God’s people, and can further the dialogue between the Church and the family of man, to their mutual benefit, the Catholic school retains its immense importance in the circumstances of our times too. . . . As for Catholic parents, the Council calls to mind their duty to entrust their children to Catholic schools. . . .

In 1971 the American bishops issued a pastoral letter on Catholic education, To Teach as Jesus Did. It became the standard by which to judge all Catholic schools, outlining as it did the goals and objectives for all Catholic institutions of learning. Included is the following statement: “[They] are the most effective means available to the Church for the education of children and young people.”

Pope Paul VI’s bicentennial message to the Church in the United States contained praise for the American Catholic school system and an encouragement to continue the tradition: “The strength of the Church in America (is) in the Catholic schools.” Nor was it sheer coincidence that the two Americans Paul VI canonized in connection with our bicentennial, Bishop John Neumann of Philadelphia and Mother Seton of New York, were prime movers in the parochial school effort.

A most thorough analysis of Catholic education in modern times was offered by the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education in 1977. The Catholic School probed every aspect of the educational process and also recognized the fact that some people had suggested the phasing out of Catholic schools. Its conclusion was that “to give in to them would be suicidal.”

Pope John Paul II’s esteem for the American Catholic school system was demonstrated with great regularity. Just months after his installation, he sent a videotaped message to Catholic educators gathered in Philadelphia for the annual convention of the National Catholic Educational Association, in which he said that he hoped to give “a new impulse to Catholic education throughout the vast area of the United States of America.” He went on to say: “Yes, the Catholic school must remain a privileged means of Catholic education in America. . . , worthy of the greatest sacrifices.” Later that year during his first pastoral visit to the States, with 20,000 Catholic school students at Madison Square Garden, he seized the opportunity “to tell (them) why the Church considers it so important and expends so much energy in order to provide . . . millions of young people with a Catholic education.” It is for no other purpose, he said, than to “communicate Christ” to them. He likewise referred to the Catholic school as “the heart of the Church.”

Pope Benedict XVI, at the Catholic University of America in 2008, weighed in as well:

Dear friends, the history of this nation includes many examples of the Church’s commitment in this regard. The Catholic community here has in fact made education one of its highest priorities. This undertaking has not come without great sacrifice. Towering figures, like Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton and other founders and foundresses, with great tenacity and foresight, laid the foundations of what is today a remarkable network of parochial schools contributing to the spiritual well-being of the Church and the nation. . . . Countless dedicated Religious Sisters, Brothers, and Priests together with selfless parents have, through Catholic schools, helped generations of immigrants to rise from poverty and take their place in mainstream society.

This sacrifice continues today. It is an outstanding apostolate of hope, seeking to address the material, intellectual and spiritual needs of over three million children and students. It also provides a highly commendable opportunity for the entire Catholic community to contribute generously to the financial needs of our institutions. Their long-term sustainability must be assured. Indeed, everything possible must be done, in cooperation with the wider community, to ensure that they are accessible to people of all social and economic strata. No child should be denied his or her right to an education in faith, which in turn nurtures the soul of a nation.

The twentieth-century poet and convert, Thomas Merton, reflecting on some years of his boyhood spent in France between the two world wars, contrasted the state school in the village with the Catholic one:

When I think of the Catholic parents who sent their children to a school like that, I begin to wonder what was wrong with their heads. Down by the river, in a big clean white building, was a college run by the Marist Fathers. I had never been inside it: indeed, it was so clean that it frightened me. But I knew a couple of boys who went to it. They were sons of the little lady who ran the pastry shop opposite the church at St. Antonin and I remember them as exceptionally nice fellows, very pleasant and good. It never occurred to anyone to despise them for being pious. And how unlike the products of the Lycée they were!

When I reflect on all this, I am overwhelmed at the thought of the tremendous weight of moral responsibility that Catholic parents accumulate upon their shoulders by not sending their children to Catholic schools. Those who are not of the Church have no understanding of this. They cannot be expected to. As far as they can see, all this insistence on Catholic schools is only a money-making device by which the Church is trying to increase its domination over the minds of men, and its own temporal prosperity. And of course most non-Catholics imagine that the Church is immensely rich, and that all Catholic institutions make money hand over fist, and that all that money is stored away somewhere to buy gold and silver dishes for the Pope and cigars for the College of Cardinals.

Is it any wonder that there can be no peace in a world where everything possible is being done to guarantee that the youth of every nation will grow up absolutely without moral and religious discipline, and without the shadow of an interior life, or of that spirituality and charity and faith which alone can safeguard the treaties and agreements made by governments?

And Catholics, thousands of Catholics everywhere, have the consummate audacity to weep and complain because God does not hear their prayers for peace, when they have neglected not only His will, but the ordinary dictates of natural reason and prudence, and let their children grow up according to the standards of a civilization of hyenas.1

We need to revive what I like to call “The Spirit of 1884,” in which the bishops of our nation issued their clarion call to have every Catholic child in a Catholic school. In that way and only in that way, shall we stave off the emergence of another generation growing up “according to the standards of a civilization of hyenas.”