Every August, I find myself joining millions of other parents in that ritual known as back to school shopping. This year, as in other years, I stood out because of the sheer scope of my purchases – clothing and school supplies for 8 school age children require multiple carts and invite many comments. As parents around me clutched their fashionable outfits and stole glances at what the other parents were buying, most glances my way were pretty dismissive. No one looked at my kids’ clothes as a fashion barometer, although I could sense that some of the really tired parents were envious of the fact that I could breeze in and buy my back to school outfits – navy and khaki pants, navy, white or green shirts – in 10 minutes. Inevitably, I get the usual comments about how many school supplies I’m purchasing, questions about where my kids go, the uneasy unspoken concern that maybe I am one of those religious fanatics, and the spoken observation that Catholic schools are great if you can afford them.
But back to school shopping isn’t the only occasion for comparison. I recall a girls lacrosse game at our local school district, a wealthy district with state-of-the-art facilities, especially its athletic fields, where my husband and I overheard members of our own community simultaneously criticizing the Catholic school’s inferior athletic facilities, while declaring that it is inhabited by a bunch of spoiled rich kids. (How ironic!) Or a swim meet at another public school, where the Catholic school team’s modest 1970’s style sweats paled in comparison to the gear sported by the public school swimmers. Or grade school honors band concerts at our local Catholic high schools, where we patiently tried to explain to other parents considering the school that what is important about these Catholic high schools is intangible, that the modest facilities instill in our kids an appreciation of the education itself. In many ways, the fact that the school is still refinishing and reusing the desks that my husband sat in during his years at this Catholic high school in the 1980’s symbolizes the enduring priorities of Catholic high schools, where for so many years, on shoestring budgets, the schools have turned out Catholic men and women who excel in school, in life and in the community.
So why do parents choose to send their children to Catholic high schools? Does a Catholic education really make a difference in the education and moral formation of a child? Why not take advantage of the public high schools, especially when their resources dwarf those available in some of the smaller Catholic high schools and in light of the considerable financial burden parents incur?
For some parents, including a surprising number of non-Catholic or minimally practicing Catholics, safety and education are the most important concerns; these parents tolerate the religious character of the school and education in order to escape failing or unsafe public schools. Other parents, including cultural Catholics without a strong background in catechesis, also view safety and education as top priorities, but they appreciate the value of the Catholic identity and expect a genuine Catholic character. They might expect the school to offer a strong pro-life message, for example, but are not acquainted with the finer points of doctrine. Finally, each school generally has a group of parents who are committed Catholics with a strong catechetical background. These parents understand their faith and expect excellence in teaching their faith, as well as a safe environment and academic excellence. They are committed to the Augustinian principle that any account of reality that does not include the name of Christ cannot be true, and they firmly believe that there is never a conflict between faith and reason.
In listing those three types of parents and breaking it down this way, I have no intention of disparaging any particular group. This is not a ranking of good, better, and best parents. Every educator knows that the most difficult parents to deal with, especially in terms of human formation or in terms of their relationships with their kids, can come from any of these groups, while the most delightful parents and those with an instinctive understanding of the good are also spread across these three groups. Rather, this is to get a sense of the main reasons why parents send their kids to Catholic schools.
Why Catholic high schools? Most people understand the decision to send a child to Catholic grade school. The reasons are varied – the school is a happy, sheltered place; it offers all-day kindergarten; and it is comparatively cheaper than Catholic high school. Parents who are looking for a school community to connect with as a family often find a welcoming home in Catholic grade schools. Many families are brought into or back to their faith at the grade school level for reasons including greater parental involvement in school, closer connections for families through various extracurricular activities, and more parental supervision of the content of the education. All of this brings marginal or non- Catholic families into contact with practicing Catholic families and becomes a great opportunity for evangelization.
But Catholic high schools are different. First, the high cost of Catholic secondary education self-selects parents. Parents who send their kids to a Catholic high school, who make the significant financial investment are extremely motivated – they are either running from something – usually unsafe or inferior schools, or sometimes seeking to remove their son or daughter from a bad crowd – or are actively seeking something specific, usually a rigorous education or a safe, excellent school with a strong Catholic identity. Even so, while parents’ reasons for choosing Catholic high schools vary, most demonstrate their satisfaction by remaining in the school and recommending their school to friends and family.
The second difference is that Catholic high schools are trying to transition students to adulthood, and therefore teachers and administrators initially deal directly with students rather than parents. This is an appropriate and necessary part of guiding a student to maturity and preparing him or her for success in higher education, at work, and ultimately in living out his or her vocation. While Catholic grade schools focus on evangelization of the family, Catholic high schools must focus on the evangelization and catechesis of the student. And it is effective. A 2007 CARA survey from Georgetown demonstrated that “Attending Catholic high school for at least three years significantly reduces the likelihood that one disaffiliates from Catholicism, reducing both the likelihood that one converts to another faith and the likelihood that one chooses to have no religion at all.” Again, while the elementary schools provide an effective vehicle for the evangelization of the family as a whole, Catholic secondary schools are indispensable for the formation of the student into a mature Catholic man or woman. Ideally both Catholic grade school and Catholic high school would work together to complete the work of evangelization, evangelizing the family first, then the children individually.
What does the church tell us about the role and mission of the Catholic school? In 1997, the Vatican published a document entitled The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millenium. This document identified four important aspects of Catholic education: formation of the person, a Christ-centered education founded on the unity of faith and reason, its role as an indispensable place of evangelization, and its service to society by providing an excellent education for all, regardless of creed.
Formation of the person
At the center of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council is this concept: The mystery of man is revealed and becomes intelligible only in light of the mystery of Christ.
“There is a tendency to forget that education always presupposes and involves a definite concept of man and life. To claim neutrality for schools signifies in practice, more times than not, banning all reference to religion from the cultural and educational field,….. With its educational project inspired by the Gospel, the Catholic school is called to take up this challenge and respond to it in the conviction that “it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear”.(9) Third Millenium
In light of this truth, human formation takes place with the goal of becoming like Christ. In particular, Catholic high school students are formed in virtue from the repeated practice of virtuous behavior and the prohibition of vices. These virtues are set within the framework of the Gospel, providing a ready and objective standard for the evaluation of one’s own behavior. It is understood that students are far from perfect, but that virtues are built through constant repetition of good behavior and constant, patient yet firm correction of bad behaviors.
In contrast, without this framework, students are formed in a nebulous world where the only thing one can know with any certainty, is that you should never make a claim to any certainty nor make any moral judgments (except to judge the intolerant). In this world, tolerance becomes the highest virtue, and students and individuals engage in behavior designed to test that tolerance. Make no mistake – parents of children in Catholic schools are aware of what’s going on in our culture and choose this countercultural education for that very reason.
A quick scan of our culture provides plenty of opportunities to reflect on why parents value the human formation in Catholic high schools:
Example 1: The Dread Pony
In the near future, historians will struggle to locate the precise moment when civilization’s wheels finally, irretrievably came off. By then, there will have been too many such moments to pinpoint one with any certainty. But I’ll mark the day as having occurred on a recent August weekend when, standing in the concourse of the Baltimore Convention Center, I watch grown men with problem skin and five o’clock shadows prance around in pony ears, rainbow manes, and braided tails lashed to their belt-loops, doling out “free hugs,” starting “fun! fun! fun!” chants, and spontaneously breaking into song. “Give me a bro hoof,” says one, trying to knuckle-bump me. It’s what you might imagine heaven to be like, if your idea of heaven is hell.
I’ve come to BronyCon, where the herd gallops 8,500 strong, up from a “mare” 100 conferees (apologies, but Bronies insist on speaking in horrible horse puns) at the first BronyCon in 2011. If you’ve been lucky enough to stay off the Internet for the last three years — Internet-culture and culture-proper having long since become one and the same — you might not know that “Brony” is a portmanteau of “bro” and “pony,” used to indicate the (mostly) late teenage and adult male fans of the children’s cartoon series My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. (Average age: 21, though I encounter scores of middle-aged Bronies, and even a 60-year-old.)
Much has been written about the infantilization of the American male, which for a change is not media hype. The average age of video-gamers is now 37, and 2011 census data show roughly a quarter of 25-to-34-year-olds still living with their parents. By some counts, more adult-leaning superhero/comic-book movies have been made in the last couple of years than in the entire decades of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s combined.
But Bronies represent a novel variation on the theme: Like so many American men, they wish to be forever suspended in childhood. Except this time, they want to be 6-year-old girls. Bronies have, in fact, come to embody what pop sociologists call the New Sincerity Movement. The thinking goes that the smirky ironic detachment of recent decades— pretending to embrace low-culture totems for laughs — has grown stale. Now that the Internet has fragmented the culture into a million pieces, helping every maladjusted shut-in to realize his natural level of eccentricity, the only way for a self-respecting hipster or a Zuckerbergian alpha-nerd (the tribe that now runs the world) to distinguish himself is to enthuse over his enthusiasms without detachment or apology. Even if that means grown men writing Twilight Sparkle fan fiction or cutting bad electronica songs with titles like, “I Might Be a Brony.” You might find it funny, but they’re not joking.
Several things strike me about this story. The men in this story crave acceptance and tolerance of their lifestyle, even as it becomes more bizarre. Not only do they seek to avoid adult reponsibilities, but they cling to a childish understanding of the moral landscape of reality. Finally, if there is a religious void – any belief will fill it. This phenomenon is alarming to parents who want to see their kids becoming mature men and women taking on adult responsibilities.
Example 2: An interview on NPR “Young people push back against gender categories”
Margot Adler: At the Elizabeth Irwin High School in New York City, there’s a student group called Spectrum. The title was chosen because it seemed to represent what students were thinking and feeling much more than gay students association, or LGBT or even LGBTQ, for queer. I asked Harry Fernandez, a sophomore at the school who identifies as a gay male, what he means by queer.
HARRY FERNANDEZ: Kind of straying from the norm, not being what society tells you to be regarding your sexuality, your gender, who you love.
ADLER: Becka Luna Liebowitz, a freshman in the group, uses Q for another word.
BECA LUNA LIEBOWITZ: I, myself, I guess you call it questioning.
ADLER: But some students are going further. At one college that Joy Ladin visited, things were so fluid you could make up a different pronoun for a different event.
LADIN: So you can be she/her at one event and then you go to lunch and you say, OK, now I am he/him. And then one charming young woman told me, oh, yes, today, I’m just using made up pronouns.
LYNN WALKER: We encountered high school students who said, I want you to call me Tractor and use pronouns like zee, zim and zer. And, in fact, I reject the gender binary as an oppressive move by the dominant culture.
It is hard to imagine the level of uncertainty these young men and women display about the reality of the person. I have yet to meet a parent from a Catholic high school who aspires to that level of confusion for his or her children. Certainly, a strong grounding in Christian anthropology provides our children with an understanding of masculinity and femininity as gift and blessing.
Example 3: The hookup culture as described in the New York Times by Kate Taylor
At 11 on a weeknight earlier this year, her work finished, a slim, pretty junior at the University of Pennsylvania did what she often does when she has a little free time. She texted her regular hookup — the guy she is sleeping with but not dating. What was he up to? He texted back: Come over. So she did. They watched a little TV, had sex and went to sleep.
Their relationship, she noted, is not about the meeting of two souls.
“We don’t really like each other in person, sober,” she said, adding that “we literally can’t sit down and have coffee.”
Ask her why she hasn’t had a relationship at Penn, and she won’t complain about the death of courtship or men who won’t commit. Instead, she’ll talk about “cost-benefit” analyses and the “low risk and low investment costs” of hooking up.
“I positioned myself in college in such a way that I can’t have a meaningful romantic relationship, because I’m always busy and the people that I am interested in are always busy, too,” she said.
“And I know everyone says, ‘Make time, make time,’ ” said the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity but agreed to be identified by her middle initial, which is A. “But there are so many other things going on in my life that I find so important that I just, like, can’t make time, and I don’t want to make time.”
Again, I do not know any parents who want their son or daughter partaking of the hookup culture. The antidote to this is Christian anthropology, which teaches the dignity of person, upholds the importance of relationships that are based on true Christian charity, and views sexual intimacy within the context of love and intimacy with God.
Fidelity to the truth – relationship between faith and reason
Pope John Paul II famously said: Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves (cf. Ex 33:18; Ps 27:8-9; 63:2-3; Jn 14:8; 1 Jn 3:2).
It turns out that knowing and loving God not only causes us to have a refined appreciation of our faith but actually aids us in our pursuit of the truth in other fields.
Cardinal Dolan notes:
The academic strength of Catholic schools is unassailable. Researchers like Helen Marks, in her essay “Perspectives on Catholic Schools” in Mark Berends’s Handbook of Research on School Choice (2009), have found that when learning in a Catholic school is done in an environment replete with moral values and the practice of faith, its test scores and achievements outstrip public school counterparts.
The Third Millenium document explains it further:
Indeed, knowledge set in the context of faith becomes wisdom and life vision. The endeavour to interweave reason and faith, which has become the heart of individual subjects, makes for unity, articulation and coordination, bringing forth within what is learnt in school a Christian vision of the world, of life, of culture and of history. In the Catholic school’s educational project there is no separation between time for learning and time for formation, between acquiring notions and growing in wisdom. The various school subjects do not present only knowledge to be attained, but also values to be acquired and truths to be discovered.(15)
It notes that this is not just because of the subject matter, but rather is because of the teaching vocations of the men and women who dedicate themselves to teaching in our catholic schools.
All of which demands an atmosphere characterized by the search for truth, in which competent, convinced and coherent educators, teachers of learning and of life, may be a reflection, albeit imperfect but still vivid, of the one Teacher. In this perspective, in the Christian educational project all subjects collaborate, each with its own specific content, to the formation of mature personalities.
Make no mistake about it, this is an important vocation. Jesus described himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life – the Catholic high school brings Him to the students through human formation (The Way), intellectual formation (the Truth), and the sacramental life of the school (the Life). Truly each high school teacher brings Christ to our children, and brings our children to Christ.
Evangelization – service to Christ, service to the parish, service to the world
In describing the role of the school in evangelization, the Third Millenium document notes that its Catholic nature is its identity. It is not some sort of ancillary characteristic, but rather is wholly inseparable.
The Catholic school participates in the evangelizing mission of the Church and is the privileged environment in which Christian education is carried out. In this way “Catholic schools are at once places of evangelization, of complete formation, of inculturation, of apprenticeship in a lively dialogue between young people of different religions and social backgrounds”.(10) The ecclesial nature of the Catholic school, therefore, is written in the very heart of its identity as a teaching institution. It is a true and proper ecclesial entity by reason of its educational activity, “in which faith, culture and life are brought into harmony”.(11) Thus, it must be strongly emphasized that this ecclesial dimension is not a mere adjunct, but is a proper and specific attribute, a distinctive characteristic which penetrates and informs every moment of its educational activity, a fundamental part of its very identity and the focus of its mission.(12) The fostering of this dimension should be the aim of all those who make up the educating community.
Cardinal Dolan described the importance of the Catholic schools in the following way. This is a long quote, but bear with me – the historical context is important.
In New York, for example, a nagging concern from the 19th century is re-emerging at the start of the 21st. My predecessor, Archbishop John Hughes—famously known as Dagger John for his fearsome wit and readiness to fight for Catholic rights—struggled to rid the New York public schools in the 1840s of their anti-Catholic bias. He was convinced, after watching immigrant families fight discrimination, that “the days had come, and the place, in which the school is more necessary than the church” (from James Burns’s A History of Catholic Education in the United States, emphasis added). Quite a statement—one echoed by several of his brother bishops, including a saint, John Neuman, bishop of Philadelphia, and the scholar and reformer John Lancaster Spalding of Peoria, who said that “without parish schools, there is no hope that the Church will be able to maintain itself in America” (see David Sweeney’s The Life of John Lancaster Spalding). These men understood that until Catholic schools were up and running, Catholic life would be stagnant. They made the establishment of Catholic schools their priority, and, thank God, most other American bishops followed their example. In 1956, for instance, my own parish in Ballwin, Mo., built its school even before its church, and I am sure glad they did, because that year I entered first grade to begin the most formative eight years of my life.
Given the aggressive secularization of American culture, could it be that Catholics are looking at the same consequences that met those 19th-century prelates? Today’s anti-Catholicism hardly derives from that narrow 19th-century Protestantism, intent on preserving its own cultural and political hold. Those battles are long settled. Instead, the Catholic Church is now confronted by a new secularization asserting that a person of faith can hardly be expected to be a tolerant and enlightened American. Religion, in this view, is only a personal hobby, with no implications for public life. Under this new scheme, to take one’s faith seriously and bring it to the public square somehow implies being un-American. To combat this notion, an equally energetic evangelization—with Catholic schools at its center—is all the more necessary.
The 21st-century version of the Hughes predicament, which tried to establish Catholic rights in the face of a then anti-Catholic America, would seem to suggest that without Catholic schools the church in the United States is growing less Catholic, less engaged with culture and less capable of transforming American life with the Gospel message. As long as we Catholics refuse to acknowledge that the overall health of the church in the United States is vitally linked not only to the survival but the revival of the Catholic school, we are likely to miss the enormous opportunity this present moment extends.
The CARA study on Catholic education highlights the importance of Catholic secondary education for continued affiliation with and identification with Catholicism.
“We conclude that at least three years of Catholic high schooling decreases the likelihood that young people leave the Church later in life. … Our data cannot determine the mechanisms behind these effects, but the stark contrast between attending Catholic high school and CCD leads us, like other researchers, to speculate about social networks. Attending Catholic high school occupies a large portion of day- to-day life and seems likely to enmesh one in an array of close, dense social ties—creating an experience of living in the midst of a Catholic community. Such an experience might make it important to young people to remain Catholic for the sake of maintaining that network of dense social ties in daily life, though not necessarily important to attend Mass because the parish is not the primary locus of those relationships. And it might make them continue to seek such relationships throughout their life, a desire that would presumably manifest itself in their choice of spouses. …
Even if true, this speculation leaves unanswered the question of which types of high school social ties are most important in sustaining Catholic identity. Friendships with other students certainly seem likely to be crucial, particularly given evidence that peer groups influence adolescent religious commitment (Dudley 1999; O’Connor et al. 2002; Gunnoe and Moore 2002). However, other possibilities exist. Relationships with those who teach in high schools, particularly priests or nuns, may also be important.1
The CARA research is invaluable, but I do think it omits one important factor. When students study religion at their Catholic high school, they are far more likely to understand their faith, far less likely to assume that there is not significant doctrinal difference among Christian churches, far more likely to be able to answer the objections of Protestant or atheist objectors. This is especially true now, given the dramatic improvement in the quality of the high school religious educational materials. In other words, perhaps the CARA survey showed that Catholic high schools also are a better intellectual formation. In particular, the student is educated in an environment that embraces the unity of faith and reason – the student’s Catholic faith truly is an integral part of his entire day. I reject the radical separation of who Catholic educators are, from what they teach. And while students’ relationships with them are vitally important, what they teach matters very much.
Service to society
Finally, the Church has a long track record of educating those who are poor and in need. Catholic education is truly of service to society, offering hope to families trapped by failing school systems and unsafe schools.
Cardinal Dolan points out:
Updating the work of John Coleman in the early 1980s, Professor Berends also estimates that two factors—the influence of Catholic values and the fostering of Catholic faith and morals—are the single biggest supports for the success of many young people, Catholic or not, educated in inner-city Catholic schools.
• Sociologists like Father Greeley, in his book Catholic Schools in a Declining Church (1976), and Mary Gautier, in her more recent article “Does Catholic Education Make a Difference?” (National Catholic Reporter, 9/30/05), have found that graduates of Catholic schools are notably different from Catholic children not in parochial schools in four important areas: 1) fidelity to Sunday Mass and a keener sense of prayer; 2) maintaining pro-life attitudes, especially on the pivotal topic of abortion; 3) the personal consideration of a religious vocation and 4) continued support for the local church and community, both financially and through service projects, for the balance of their adult lives.
The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millenium notes:
In this way the Catholic school’s public role is clearly perceived. It has not come into being as a private initiative, but as an expression of the reality of the Church, having by its very nature a public character. It fulfills a service of public usefulness and, although clearly and decidedly configured in the perspective of the Catholic faith, is not reserved to Catholics only, but is open to all those who appreciate and share its qualified educational project.
Whether it serves the common good by educating fine Catholic men and women or by rescuing the largely non-Catholic students in failing urban settings, Catholic schools truly are part of the common good. Catholic school graduates continue to make important contributions in every field of employment, in service opportunities and in valuing their own family lives.
One of the areas of greatest concern then is the constant devaluing of Catholic schools: Cardinal Dolan summed it up as an attitude that American Catholics no longer feel responsible for preserving Catholic education, but rather see it as a matter of individual choice. The net result is that Catholic high schools especially are seen as a privilege only for the wealthy. We have lost our understanding that Catholic education is imperative for the church and society.
Here in Pittsburgh, as well as in other dioceses facing demographic and financial challenges, it is imperative to hold onto this truth: the future of the Catholic Church rests with its Catholic educators, with the students and families who are part of our wonderful Catholic school system, especially our high schools. I would add that as the public square becomes more hostile to Christian values, it is imperative to keep our Catholic high schools open: not because we wish to create some kind of Catholic ghetto, but because we need to prepare our kids for the obstacles that face them as they attempt to put their faith into action.
Cardinal Dolan challenges us: It is time to recover our nerve and promote our schools for the 21st century. The current hospice mentality—watching our schools slowly die—must give way to a renewed confidence. American Catholic schools need to be unabashedly proud of their proven gritty ability to transmit faith and values to all their students, particularly welcoming the immigrant and the disadvantaged, whose hope for success lies in an education that makes them responsible citizens.
Finally: There are many moments when my husband and I say to each other that we are truly grateful for our children’s Catholic education. Several instances stand out: watching multiple buses packed with students leave their Catholic high school’s parking lot at 5 am in late January and return after 11 pm so that our kids can witness to the dignity of human life at the March for Life; watching sports teams with no coaches present, no parents prompting, gather together and say grace before meals; listening to our children intelligently discuss social and political issues, or identify an early church heresy; watching the gentle, loving reaction of a group of Catholic high school students to our disabled two year old daughter …
I speak from my experience at our small, inner-city Catholic high school, but I know that Catholic high schools everywhere can boast of similar moments.
No discussion of Catholic education would be complete without a word to the faculty and staff: For these moments I have described, and the grace-filled moments that are too many to enumerate, for your constant and faith-filled dedication to our children’s education, for your patience with our very imperfect teens as they struggle with growing up, for bringing Christ to our children through your teaching and example, for your service to the church and to our community through the education of our children, on behalf of all of the parents in our Catholic schools, we thank you and ask God to continue to bless and inspire you.