Sunday begins the 40th Catholic Schools Week in the United States, focused this year on how Catholic schools strive to form students for “faith, excellence and service.” It is a time for Catholics to focus on the importance of Catholic schools in the life and mission of the Church. It’s also an opportunity for society as a whole to recognize the enormous impact Catholic schools have had in the development of our country.
Catholic schools have been the engine of assimilation and advancement for tens of millions of children of immigrants, forming them not only to love our nation but to serve it with virtue and dedication. Especially in overcrowded metropolises where government schools have historically struggled, Catholic schools, connected to communities of faith, neighborhoods and larger nexuses of support and accountability, have been able to foster a culture of learning that spurred even kids from the most difficult of familial circumstances to excel, rise from poverty and become leaders in all segments of society.
Catholic schools have been able to do that not because they patented secret ways of superior pedagogy, but primarily because of the selfless dedication of religious Sisters, teaching Brothers and communities, and, more recently, lay men and women — a dedication that stood out once again during the COVID pandemic when Catholic schools were open and most government schools were virtual. Their vocations have been focused on giving children not just information but formation, seeking to help children become men and women capable in turn of fulfilling their calling to serve God, this nation, and those in need with faith and excellence. Catholic schools have made the American dream achievable for millions. This is why Catholic Schools Week should be celebrated not just by the Church but by the whole country.
Education is at the heart of the Church’s mission, a task set in motion by her Founder when He instructed His disciples to go into the whole world and teach the Gospel to every creature, educating others in what He had first taught them (Mt 28:18-20). The Church’s faithful following of this divine imperative led to the establishment of the first universities deriving from the Medieval cathedral schools and the first widespread attempts to provide an education to those who had previously been excluded, from the poor, to orphans, to girls, to people in missionary lands where no formal schooling had ever existed.
Today the Catholic Church globally runs 73,580 kindergarten programs educating more the 7 million children, 96,283 Catholic elementary schools educating 33.5 million girls and boys, 47,415 Catholic secondary schools educating 24.8 million teens and Catholic colleges and universities giving tertiary education and terminal degrees to 2.7 million more. This great educational mission has flourished in the United States more than in any other country in Church history. Today there are 5,938 Catholic schools across the USA, educating a total of 1,688,417 children, saving tax payers 22.7 billion dollars a year. Even though American Catholics comprise only six percent of the global Catholic population, the United States has 13 percent of the Catholic institutions of higher learning throughout the globe. This is an incredibly rich legacy and an impressive foundation for the continued diffusion of the mission entrusted by Christ to the Church.
But the real benefit is not just in the numbers, but in the type of education imparted. While there is no specifically “catholic” way to teach math, science, English, or social studies, each is taught within a greater context, because the laws of mathematics and science reflect God the Creator’s order, language is given so that we can communicate with each other and with God, history is taught so that we can build on the good done in the past and avoid the mistakes and sins. Students receive more than instruction for their brains, but rather an “integral education” geared toward forming their souls and their character.
Today, this advantage stands out all the more because of an aggressive secularism that has taken hold in much of public education, where the minds and souls of young people are often being poisoned by curricula with fundamentally erroneous ideas on human anthropology, marriage and family, ethics, life and love.
As recently departed Pope Benedict XVI stated prophetically 15 years ago, “There is talk of a great ‘educational emergency,’ of the increasing difficulty encountered in transmitting the basic values of life and correct behavior to the new generations. … Relativism has become a sort of dogma. … For this reason, education tends to be broadly reduced to the transmission of specific abilities or capacities for doing. In this way we are not offering to young people … what it is our duty to pass on to them:… the true values that give life a foundation. This situation … ignores the essential aim of education, which is the formation of a person to enable him or her to live to the full and to make his or her own contribution to the common good.”
Education is far more than instruction or the transmission of particular skills. As the Latin word edúcere indicates, it means leading people out of the darkness of ignorance into the light of knowledge, from immaturity to true maturity. It’s aimed not just at helping people become smarter, but wiser. It involves not just imparting information but formation, assisting them to seek the truth, come to know it, and come to live in accordance with it. Its goal is not just to help them become intelligent men and women but genuinely good persons.
But even if public schools and popular culture were still able to provide a solid ethical formation for the young, the value and uniqueness of a Catholic education would still stand out, because the most distinctive aspect of Catholic moral formation is that it can be done with explicit reference to Jesus Christ. Catholic schools can introduce the student not merely to “moral values” but to their Source.
In Catholic education, students can be introduced not only to the truths of math, science, history, and language, but to Truth incarnate (Jn 8:32). They find not just smaller classrooms, but a divine Master who tutors everyone individually. They are taught not just in a safer environment, but where a Shepherd protects them from the wolves and guides them safely with His familiar voice and the simple instruction “follow Me.” They are prepared not just for the SAT and for entrance into college, but for the final exam of life and for admittance, God-willing, into the college of saints. They are ultimately presented with the well-rounded geography of the real, real world, and not the flat-earth equivalent of a God-less one.
That is why all Catholics should recognize their inestimable value, celebrate them and support them as they carry out their mission to prepare the young for faith, excellence and loving service.