Supreme Court Case Exposes Catholic Education’s Achilles’ Heel

COMMENTARY: Do we serve the ever-changing secular, political, ideological world? Or do we see education as an awakening to the truth?

(photo: Mark Thomas/Pixabay/CC0)

Some time ago I penned an article, “Trojan Textbooks: Beware of Government Bearing Gifts,” in which I discussed the problem with accepting government funding for textbooks. The topic is a bit complex.

On the one hand the state has a vested interest and therefore bears some responsibility for funding students’ educational needs. On the other hand, the current political winds are tying policies and funding to increasingly radical ideological activist agendas. At the heart of the question is how can we as Catholic schools retain the freedom we should have to educate our young people in truth — indeed, in Truth?

The Supreme Court recently heard arguments in a case regarding discrimination in hiring practices in Catholic schools. The salient points of the case, St. James School v. Biel, speak to the heart of the integrity we have compromised in our Catholic schools in the last 50 years. Catholic educators at all levels have forgotten the sweeping authority and responsibility of our bishops in making sure Catholic schools are available, accessible and function as a teaching instrument of the Church ordered to a life in Christ.

In our efforts to make sure we follow canon law, which states that school directors ensure “that the instruction which is given in (schools) is at least as academically distinguished as that in the other schools of the area” (806), our Catholic schools in America almost universally have adopted the system of public credentialing, licensing, and accreditation. We have required the secular education degree and/or credentials to be held by virtually all of our teachers.

Our Catholic universities have adopted essentially the same teacher preparation programs, textbooks and curricula. Our school standards and textbooks are almost entirely the same as their public school counterparts, with a little Catholic identity sprinkled atop the teaching. So, given the systemic structure we have adopted, it seems fair to say that our Catholic school system is now, by nature, secular. However, we have warmed-to-boiled this frog of our own accord.

Now the Supreme Court is standing in judgment of our practices and our structures. The attorneys arguing for religious freedom have a monstrous job on their hands trying to preserve what properly and justly belongs to Catholic schools —religious freedom in our hiring practices, not to mention all other aspects of education. But our system has made their job almost impossible. How do you argue against Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg when she asks, “How can a Jewish teacher be a Catholic minister?” Vox reported another difficult hurdle with plain language:

Biel and Morrissey-Berru …(b)oth involve teachers who spent some time every week teaching Catholic religion to their students. But both of these teachers have secular degrees (although one did take “catechist courses” provided by Los Angeles’s Catholic archdiocese). Both women were also classified by their schools as “lay employees” (emphasis added).

And, unmentioned but certainly possible to arise as such cases mount, is that the very diocesan policies we must lean on require secular state credentials, an expensive and long certification process, which indicates that the primary purpose of professional teachers is to effect the state guidelines for education.

Nothing could be farther from the mind of the Church. In “The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools,” Archbishop J. Michael Miller of Vancouver, Canada, makes sure we understand that so-called secular subjects are taught, but that we must see them all as part of the embodiment of our Creator in our world.

“Catholicism must permeate … the entire curriculum,” he says. Further, the last of his five Catholic school benchmarks states that every school must be imbued with a Gospel witness, which is embodied by teachers.

The dichotomy is clear. Do we serve the ever-changing secular, political, ideological world? Or do we see education as an awakening to the truth, i.e., “the conformity of one’s mind to reality,” as St. Thomas Aquinas so eloquently and succinctly puts it? Where is the direction of canon law in our policies? Where is our fundamental mission of Gospel witness to be found in our so-called professionalism? Why is it that the ever-increasing levels of professionalism in education has resulted in U.S. schools sinking further and further down the scales of educational performance?

There has to be a different answer.

There is, and the Catholic Church has it. The Church helped build the system of education in the Western world over the last 800 years.

Yet, for the last 50 years the Catholic school system has been increasingly following the secular industrialized model of education in our teacher formation, adoption of standards, and hiring policies. As said previously, we have done so by our own choosing. By last count only two states truly require state certification in order to license a school, public or private. The vast majority of Catholic dioceses and schools willingly adopt these measurements by internal policy. Maybe it is for money, maybe prestige, maybe an inferiority complex? We do know we have thousands of schools and hundreds of chanceries staffed by the most well-meaning people of faith and fidelity, but yet we have handed over the keys to our mission integrity.

Why do we persist in comparing ourselves to other schools when we should measure ourselves in accord with the Church’s principles for education? There is no way to serve God while teaching innocent children about first confession and first Holy Communion when, at the same time, those same children’s social studies textbooks introduce them to lesbianism, bisexuality, etc., as is the case in California and other states’ new textbook and curriculum standards. Identity politics is already wedging its way into the teacher certification process and will unfortunately pit our own moral integrity against professional certification.

Alaska passed such a policy for all state-licensed teachers this past year, and there is no accommodation for religious exemptions. An article in the Alaska Watchman on the new policy followed up with Melody Mann who serves as the executive director of the commission “to further clarify exactly how this new policy is being enforced and what some of the terms actually mean.” Mann replied clearly:

“If a teacher (or any educator) in a private or religious school holds a current and valid certificate in the State of Alaska (i.e. is licensed), he or she can be sanctioned by the Commission,” Mann stated. “The Commission did not make any religious exemptions to the nondiscrimination section of the Code of Ethics regarding gender identity.”

One can surely expect more and more states to follow suit as the LGBTQ agenda is a primary activist-driven mover of public school policy across the nation.
Let us pray we win this particular Supreme Court case. But, more importantly, let us learn a terrifying lesson from this: How close we are to losing our freedom because we have surrendered control of our schools, curricula, hiring practices, etc. Let us today, especially in this time of the COVID-19 crisis that has us all pondering what education and community really are, consider remaking our schools and policies from the roots up.

Mission drift has put us in a precarious situation. Mission realignment and renewal, based on the Holy See’s teachings, could bullet-proof us from most attacks in the future. But, even without regard to legal reasons, it is our moral duty to do it. We are reminded of the grave duty that derives from the nature of man and our duties as parents, teachers, administrators and bishops. It is time for us to all think about and take clear action on revising our policies, practices, and especially our curricula at the site level all the way to the episcopal chair.

This is the Catholic School Moment. The world needs our Gospel witness and the hope that comes with Truth in the person of Christ, manifested in the joyful and integral Catholic school community. When we align our faculty, our curricula and our policies to the mind of the Church, we can surely claim “ministerial” employment. We can even, if we have hired and trained her right, claim that Jewish teacher is training that child in Catholicism, provided she is teaching “as Jesus did.”

So, from the bottom up or the top down let us redouble our efforts to produce scholarly Catholic curriculum and textbooks, to train teachers in pedagogy based on a Christian anthropology rather than the ed school research that imposes a new experiment every few years, to rediscover time-tested best practices that worked for hundreds of years, and to consider what several bishops and superintendents are already starting to talk about: an in-house diocesan or USCCB Catholic teacher certificate or credential. Freedom requires bold action and sound principles that are our heritage in this Church of saints, scholars and martyrs.

Or, as I ended my Trojan Textbooks article, “Sometimes liberty comes at a cost!”

Michael J. Van Hecke, M.Ed., a seasoned Headmaster and educational speaker, is also the founder and president of The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education ( and the Catholic Textbook Project ( In their spare time, he and his wife farm avocados.