Why Catholic?

churchThe purpose of this article is to encourage parents who may be considering the choice of a Catholic school for their child’s education. This alternative will require that you commit to a considerable investment of your time, talents, and financial resources for your child’s educational future. So why should you choose a Catholic school? There are many compelling reasons, beyond the benefits of higher academic achievement.

The integration of life with religious truth and values distinguishes the Catholic school from other schools. In their 1972 pastoral message on Catholic education, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops outlined educational objectives for carrying out the mission entrusted by Jesus to the Church he founded:

Education is one of the most important ways by which the Church fulfills its commitment to the dignity of the person and building of community. Community is central to education ministry, both as a necessary condition and an ardently desired goal. The educational efforts of the Church, therefore, must be directed to forming persons-in-community; for the education of the individual Christian is important not only to his solitary destiny, but also to the destinies of the many communities in which he lives.

Catholic schools afford the fullest and best opportunity to realize the threefold purpose of Christian education among children and young people. A school has a greater claim on the time and loyalty of the student and his family. It makes accessible to students participation in the liturgy and the sacraments, which are powerful forces for the development of personal sanctity and for the building of community. It provides a more favorable pedagogical and psychological environment for teaching Christian faith. Only in such a school can they experience learning and living fully integrated in the light of faith.

In preparation for the 25th anniversary of this pastoral letter, in 1997, the American Bishops issued a statement committing themselves to new goals “as a sign of affirmation of the principles laid down in that pastoral.” They expressed their “deep conviction” and “concern for the importance of the Catholic schools.” Based on the conviction that “our Church and our nation have been enriched because of the qualify of education provided in Catholic schools over the last 300 years now we are called to sustain and expand this vitally important ministry of the Church,” their goals are that:

  1. Catholic schools will continue to provide high-quality education for all of their students in a context infused with Gospel values.
  2. Serious efforts will be made to ensure that Catholic schools are available for Catholic parents who wish to send their children to them.
  3. New initiatives will be launched to secure sufficient financial assistance from both private and public sectors for Catholic parents to exercise their right.
  4. The salaries and benefits of Catholic school teachers and administrators will reflect our teachings as expressed in Economic Justice For All.

churchJesus, the rabbi and teacher, addressed his apostles for the last time and charged them with the responsibility, “Go, teach all nations.” This invitation, command, and promise are the wellsprings of Catholic schools: an invitation to know him more clearly and to live him most completely; a command to make disciples by teaching his message and proclaiming his Good News; and a cherished promise that he would abide with us in a community of believers until his second coming. The educational mission of the Church is an integrating ministry embracing three interlocking dimensions: the message revealed by God, which the Church proclaims; fellowship in the life of the Holy Spirit; and service to the Christian community and the entire human community.
More than 5 million parents truly believe that Jesus “came that they may have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10), and they search for that fullness of life for their children in Catholic schools. The Catholic school is a “privileged place” to hear that invitation, that command, and that promise. Next to the family, it is the most effective place for Christians to search the inscrutable mysteries of revelation and to be assured that, even before the world was made, God had decreed to call each person to life and prepare each person for the fullness of life. In the Catholic schools, young people learn Christ?s commandment to love God and one another. They are taught that this is the greatest of the commandments. The Catholic school is a living testimony of millions of Christians that Jesus is alive in his community and is continuing his promise to strengthen each “with the utter fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19).

schoolThe Catholic school is an academic center. It is an effective educational endeavor precisely because it is an integrator of faith and life and culture. The Catholic school is unique because it is a religious community within an academic community. As a school, it is a community of learners and teachers, administrators and parents, staff and resource people. At the same time, it is a faith community of Christian youth and adults who come together to make Christ present among them in a special way. There is always a two-fold purpose in a Catholic school: learning and believing. To be an exemplary Catholic school, there must be the proper blend of learning and believing in the community.

The Congregation for Catholic Education in Rome explains that a Catholic school is not simply a place where lessons are taught; it is a center that has an operative educational philosophy, attentive to the needs of today’s youth and illumined by the Gospel message. Neither learning nor believing should be neglected. Rather, the very growth in human skills and learning can prepare people for a synthesis of religious truths and a peak experience of believing. At the same time, the ever-deepening of belief in the life, death, resurrection, and abiding presence of Jesus Christ is an energy that builds the faith community but also binds an academic community together in support, trust, interaction, dialogue, and love.

Although Christian life consists in loving God and doing his will, intellectual works is intimately involved. The light of Christian faith stimulates a desire to know the universe as God’s creation. It enkindles a love for the truth that will not be satisfied with superficiality in knowledge or judgment. It awakens a critical sense which examines statements rather than accepting them blindly. It impels the mind to learn with careful order and precise methods, and to work with a sense of responsibility. It provides the strength needed to accept the sacrifices and the perseverance required by intellectual labor.

The school must be concerned with constant and careful attention cultivating in students the intellectual, creative, and aesthetic faculties of the human person; to develop in them the ability to make correct use of their judgment, will, and affectivity; to promote in them a sense of values; to encourage just attitudes and prudent behavior; to introduce them to the cultural patrimony handed down from previous generations; to prepare them for professional life; and to encourage the friendly interchange among students of diverse cultures and backgrounds that will lead to mutual understanding.

researchIn 1982, researchers James Coleman, Thomas Hoffer, and Sally Kilgore did a major analysis of data to identify the differences between public and private schools. In their report, High School Achievement: Public, Catholic, and Private Schools Compared, they reported three important findings: the students in private schools learn more than those in public schools; the private schools are safer, more disciplined, and have a more ordered environment than public schools; and public schools are more internally segregated than the private school.

These differences were summarized by Dr. Donald A. Erickson, a notable researcher in private education, who drew a significant implication from the Coleman report, one which had been a keystone in his own research: that one of the most distinguishing characteristics of private schools is the superior social climate. In an article entitled, “The Superior Social Climate of Private Schools,” he states:

The private school teachers were more committed to insuring that students learned. More time was spent on instruction in the essential academic subjects. Every type of problematic behavior that Coleman examined was less prevalent in private schools. Though the discipline was more strict, and though “student rights” were not guaranteed by many legal safeguards that apply to public schools, the private school students felt they were treated more fairly and had a greater sense of control over their own destinies. Students were absent less. More homework was assigned, more was done, and less time was spent in staring at television. Parents were more supportive.

Dr. Erickson presented a conceptual model of this type of school with four characteristics, the first of which builds on the high degree of commitment of the parents, teachers, and students. They form a community with support, enthusiasm, and volunteerism. They agree on goals, objectives, and priorities. They feel a sense of “specialness” and service.

teamworkColeman and Hoffer understood “functional community” to give unity and support to people in an institution. They defined it as “a community in which social norms and sanctions, including those that cross generations, arise out of the social structure itself, and both reinforce and perpetuate that structure.”6 A functional community is “social capital”: that relationship between people that produces trust, which, in turn, creates an atmosphere where more can be accomplished than when it is absent. The success of the Catholic schools is linked to the existence of its functional communities?they are communities of learning and believing.

Summary statements from their 1987 in-depth study entitled, Public and Private High Schools: The Impact of Communities, underscored higher achievement levels:

The Catholic schools bring about greater growth for the average students in both verbal and mathematical skills than do public schools, but not in science knowledge nor in civics where the two sectors provide comparable levels in achievement growth for the average students.

The achievement growth benefits of Catholic school attendance are especially strong for students who are in one way or another disadvantaged: lower socioeconomic status, Black, or Hispanic. A corollary of this is that the benefits are least strong for those who are from advantaged family background.

Catholic schools show a considerably less depressive effect of these family deficiencies in achievement growth than do public schools; other private (non-religious) schools show a greater depressive effect of these family deficiencies on achievement growth than do public schools.

The dropout rate from Catholic schools is strikingly lower than the rate from public schools. This reduced dropout rate holds both for those who show no signs of problems as sophomores and for those who as sophomores are academically or disciplinarily at risk of dropping out.

Coleman and Hoffer wanted a scientific explanation of the low dropout rate in Catholic schools. They hypothesized that there would be a similar explanation for the higher achievement in Catholic schools, fewer disciplinary programs, and higher aspirations of Catholic school students. In essence, they found that the very low dropout rate is evidence that the functional community surrounding the Catholic school does provide social resources which keep the students from dropping out.

commandmentsThe study, Catholic Schools and the Common Good, published by Anthony Bryk, Valerie Lee, and Peter Holland in 1993, planned to “examine the distinctive features of Catholic schools and the ways in which these features combined to form supportive social environments that promote academic achievement from a broad cross-section of students.” They wanted to subject the idea of a sense of community “to rigorous specification and empirical scrutiny.”

They asked the question, “What was it about Catholic schools that fostered engagement in students and commitment in teachers?” They identified the social behaviors and the key structural features of a communal school organization as (1) a set of shared values among the members of the social community (administrators, teachers, students, and parents); (2) a sense of shared activities, both academic and non-academic in nature; and (3) a distinctive set of social relations among school members fostered by two key organizational features: a diffuse teacher role and faculty collegiality. They tested for possible “negative outcomes” (i.e., a significantly internal focus that mistrusts the external) and found, through field observations and statistical analysis, that communally organized Catholic schools are quite diverse, lacking extreme “social closure.”

Schools involves more than conveying the acquired knowledge of civilization to students and enveloping in them the intellectual skills they need to create new knowledge. Education also entails forming the basic disposition for citizenship in a democratic and pluralistic society? Fostering such a commitment makes serious demands on school. If they are to teach children how they should live in common, they must themselves be communities.

catholic-schoolsCatholic schools aren’t there to make our young upwardly mobile, nor to assure them of a wrinkle-free life, nor to offer them security. They are there precisely to take all that away from them, to lure them to give up security and come out onto the road. Any school that claims to embody the Gospel of Jesus Christ must, by definition, make them the apostles they were ordained to be at baptism, an apostleship they allegedly confirmed at Confirmation. Humanity is our nature; it’s natural. Christianity is humanity-plus; it’s supernatural. Christianity doesn’t ask us to be unbad; it asks us to be holy. We want to lead our students, with ourselves, to acknowledge humbly that we are not God, and yet we also acknowledge proudly that we have been chosen. That we are his sons and daughters, peers of the realm. That we have been missioned, just as Jesus was missioned. At this moment, Jesus has not hands but our hands. He has no hearts but our hearts. We are his embodiment. This is the life-ideal a Catholic schools wants to present to its students.

The call of the Christian is to serve, to be used, especially by the undeserving. We have it from the highest authority that the only norm for “the good life” is not how high our SAT scores were, how much money we made, or how many times we got our names in the papers. We have it from Jesus himself that the only question which will determine whether our lives were worth living is: “I was hungry. I was thirsty. I was the one they called ‘nerd.’ What did you do about that?”

If our young people find that Gospel message boring and not unnerving, then they have never really heard the Gospel message. This is the intimidating product we offer. And it is the touchstone by which our schools will be judged Catholic or not. We need to challenge our young people to get over their boredom by personal involvement, by risking to witness their faith not only to their peers, but also to those with whom they work. We need to communicate more effectively to them that their deepest hunger is for God and a real experience of love that is forever and forgiving. We need to show them what a difference the Church has made in our own lives. Adolescents long for community, friendship, identity, and a challenge, a task that will take them out of themselves in the service of others.

Catholic students must be helped to understand the profound relationship between faith and culture. They must be able to recognize the positive and negative elements of our culture to participate in the former and to resist the latter. The obstacles to integral development rest on more profound attitudes which human beings can make into absolute values.

We believe that:

  • The Catholic school is an integral part of the Church?s mission to proclaim the Gospel, build faith communities, celebrate through worship, and serve others.
  • The commitment to academic excellence, which fosters the intellectual development of faculty and students, is an integral part of the mission of the Catholic school.
  • The Catholic school is an evangelizing, educational community.
  • The spiritual formation of the entire school community is an essential dimension of the Catholic school’s mission.
  • The Catholic school is a unique, faith-centered community which integrates thinking and believing in ways that encourage intellectual growth, nurture faith, and inspire action.
  • The Catholic school is an experience of the church?s belief, tradition, and sacramental life.
  • The Catholic school creates a supportive and challenging climate which affirms the dignity of all persons within the school community.

Information in this article was excerpted from the following sources:

  • Catholic Schools for the 21st Century: Executive Summary, National Congress of Catholic Schools, National Catholic Education Association, 1992.
  • Distinctive Qualities of the Catholic School, National Catholic Education Association Keynote Series, 1997
  • To Teach As Jesus Did, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, United States Catholic Conference, 1972.
  • What Makes a School Catholic?, National Catholic Education Association, 1991.