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The Suicide of Catholic Education
With Catholic schools across the country closing at record rates, one can hardly deny the existence of a major crisis in Catholic education. Various causes are blamed: declining enrollment, financial problems, even the coronavirus pandemic. Yet, ultimately, one cannot help but think just how much those closures are self-inflicted, that what we are witnessing, and have witnessed, over the previous decades, has not been the decline of Catholic education, but its suicide.
The Head of my current (non-Catholic) school is fond of a quotation well-known in the management field: “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” In other words, the greatest (or any) strategies, plans, and initiatives will always be secondary to the cultural milieu against which they take place. Culture is primary, strategy secondary.
One need not agree fully with this idea to agree that culture is essential and that, in the area of culture, too much of Catholic education has been in a state of surrender for far too long. Secular ideas, goals, and language have long seeped into Catholic schools. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal, by one father, lamented the woke language and culture that has made its way into his daughter’s Catholic school:
Like all Catholic schools, St. Mary’s was pressured during the past decade to get woke with equity teams, affinity groups, Black Lives Matter movements, Native American land acknowledgments, transgender affirmations, climate-change hysteria and all the rest.
He wrote further how the first fund-raising appeal the school sent him after his daughter graduated, the school president described the school’s mission as:
“... to bridge equity gaps, explore careers in STEM, and advocate for change in every element in society.”
No sign of anything genuinely Catholic. In this surrender to secular culture and the active rejection of Catholic culture lies the death of Catholic education. But not death from an outside force; rather, a death by suicide.
The curriculum of Catholic schools has long been in decline. Indeed, little distinguishes the Catholic schools of today from their secular counterparts, except perhaps the higher tuition. Perhaps, that is part of the reason why fewer parents are choosing Catholic education. Too many Catholic schools use secular, state provided books, follow state curricula, and take state tests. In a situation like this, what is the Catholic difference? What difference does it make at all? Few Catholic schools still use a classical curriculum through which Catholic schools historically produced great scientists, writers, and more.
Society seems to have lost its faith. Rather than resist those trends and try to convert the world, too often Catholic schools have let themselves be converted by the world. At one Catholic school, a parent expressed concerns about the school’s Catholic identity. She was told by the Head of School that the school would have to be “spiritual” rather than religious because it served so many non-Catholic students. This brand of faithlessness, the desperate attempt to become more worldly in order to attract the word will either fail (which I suspect is most likely)... or the school will succeed, but in doing so, it will cease to become Catholic.
In another respect, Catholic schools have failed. They seem to offer education goals no different from their secular counterparts: admission to a prestigious college, a high paying job, two (three?) cars, and a nice house in the suburbs. They have taken a worldly understanding of success and substituted it for the Catholic one.
What they fail to do is to help children understand that the most important concern of their young lives will not be “what should I major in” or “what should I do for a living,” but rather: how might I love God and become closer to Him? Part of this concern is, of course, not simply a career and house, but the question of vocation: Am I called to I serve God as a married or religious? If the former, whom will I marry and have children with? If the latter, what charism or service am I called to?
A few years ago, the local bishop came to the Catholic girls’ school where I was teaching. He spoke positively about the uniqueness of being a woman and the opportunity to identify with Our Lady in bringing Christ into the world. Both school and students were furious. The bishop was accused of devaluing girls’ careers and telling them to just stay home and have babies.
But if children are so seen, as an obstacle to the greater goods of career and self-fulfillment, then few will have children; the generation after will have fewer children; and a generation later, who will there be who will even have children to send to a Catholic school? The desperate attempt to attract non-Catholic students by going secular will not save, has not saved Catholic schools. It only doubles down on the failed policies of the past decades.
Is there then any hope in such a depressing analysis? Of course, if only we care to revive it. We must promote Catholic families, promote marriage and the family, speak of the value of children, and put the idea of a career back in its proper place: in service to the family, rather than the family being in service to a career. The Church will have to cure itself of its hesitation to speak about marriage, the family, and children. Its relative silence on these matters has been a quiet surrender to the world. The world is loud, and its voice attempts to drown out God’s. The Church must be silent no longer.
Many Catholic schools, contrary to current trends, are actually strengthening Catholic identities. Homeschooling parents are rejecting the state educational model and educating children using classical Catholic curricula. Some schools are beginning to follow their lead. Genuinely Catholic curricula focusing on the Good, the True, and the Beautiful are shaping many young students. Some schools adopt devotions to Our Lord and Lady, making it an integral part of the school. Certain schools maintain the tradition of daily prayers and ensure students are able to attend Mass and Penance.
Most of all, schools will have to recover their Catholic faith. In the way of worldliness lies not only worldly failure, but spiritual failure. Lowered sights and lowered goals fail the students in every respect. It does not have to be so. We are told to seek first the kingdom of God–the highest good of all–and all else we need will be given us besides. To seek the Kingdom of God and His righteousness should be the new motto of Catholic education: only in this is there any hope that it can pull itself from the path of suicide.
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