Catholic Schools See Resurgence of Classical Education

COMMENTARY: A robust renewal of Catholic education in our country is under way.

Catholic schools that embrace classical education have taken the lead.
Catholic schools that embrace classical education have taken the lead. (photo: Jayakri / Shutterstock)

Catholic schools in the United States have often been countercultural. Today our schools challenge the dogmatic culture of secularism that's gripping public institutions — and none do so more effectively than Catholic classical schools. 

These institutions are committed to introducing their students to the foundations of Western civilization, drawing on classical wisdom and the astonishing achievements of the Catholic Church, and also cultivating their sense of wonder.

Secularists, unsurprisingly, don’t like Catholic classical schools and want to force them to bend the knee to the latest progressive fads. Fortunately, the Constitution offers legal cover, requiring that the government treats religious schools fairly and respects their autonomy.

A quick history recap: In the late 19th century, many states adopted “no aid” amendments to their constitutions, which stopped public funds going to Catholic or “sectarian” schools, while allowing money to go to public schools that, in practice, imposed Protestant tenets. 

So-called state “Blaine Amendments” — named after James Blaine, a congressman who tried to amend the Constitution to include a “no aid” provision — popped up across the country. But this anti-Catholic bigotry didn’t stop generations of Catholic families from providing their children with a Catholic education. By 1965, our nation’s parochial schools had reached a peak enrollment of 5.5 million K-12 students attending more than 12,000 Catholic schools. Since then, however, enrollment has plummeted to 1.6 million students attending fewer than 6,000 Catholic schools in 2021.

A robust renewal of Catholic education in our country is under way to address diminishing interest among Catholic families. Catholic schools that embrace classical education have taken the lead. Mark Bradford, executive director of the Regina Academies in the Philadelphia area, explains that the growth of the classical school movement is the direct result of parents looking for superior educational alternatives for their children. “What they discover in Catholic liberal arts schools is not just a superior education for their children, but a community of support for the whole family,” he says. 

So, what makes a Catholic education “classical?” Sacred Heart Academy, a parish-run K-8 school in Grand Rapids, Michigan, offers a helpful definition:

Classical education begins with an authentic view of the human person as created in the image of God and created to share in his divine life. This understanding of the human person leads to a formation which is suited to the development of a child toward personal sanctification and full participation in a distinctly Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian culture. Classical education is most naturally and completely done in a Catholic school where it can be sustained and perfected by the sacramental life of the Church.

Of course, simply affixing the “classical education” label on a school is not enough to guarantee that the benefits of such a transformative educational experience are passed on to students. There must be a genuine commitment to the intellectual and spiritual good of the student; otherwise, these schools can become obsessed with status and dull the powerful imaginations of young people.

It's reassuring, therefore, that parents can draw on a resource that helps them identify the best places to send their children. The Catholic School Playbook is a free, online resource “designed to help principals, headmasters, pastors, superintendents, teachers, and parents strengthen their schools.” The resource identifies common themes found at successful schools, including a school’s founding mission and its leadership. It observes that “the best schools have passionate, virtuous leaders — principals and headmasters, pastors, board members, and superintendents — who shape the mission, culture, operations, and community makeup of schools and enable them to thrive.” 

Having interviewed the leaders of thriving Catholic classical schools to find out “what they do differently than struggling schools,” the Playbook’s authors conclude that the most successful are headed by “servant leaders” inspired by Jesus Christ’s sacrificial love in service of God’s children. In these schools, there is no place for head teachers and administrators who are chiefly interested in social prestige. 

Mary Pat Donoghue, executive director of the Secretariat of Catholic Education for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is a perfect example of such a leader. Before assuming this position, Donoghue served as director of school services of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education and principal of St. Jerome Academy, a parochial school in Hyattsville, Maryland, and part of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. 

While at St. Jerome Academy, Donoghue created the Educational Plan of St. Jerome Academy. Humbly described as “a comprehensive picture of one possible approach to Catholic classical liberal arts education at the K-8 level,” this plan has been adopted by numerous Catholic educators interested in transitioning or renewing their schools in the classical model. 

Another important trait of successful schools is their connection with the parish community. Father Robert Sirico, the retired pastor of Sacred Heart parish in Grand Rapids and founder of the Acton Institute, reflects that the most important part of their school’s vision was to recast the school as an apostolate of the parish. 

“If you view it that way, a school does not compete with a parish, it assists the parish,” he says. “The formation of souls is the Church’s mission and how it’s done is a tactical decision.” And one of the most important changes that were made at Sacred Heart was to introduce daily Mass into the school day, allowing students and teachers to “worship alongside parishioners at the same quiet, contemplative service.”

An authentic Catholic classical school, notes the Playbook, also has “a deep respect for parents as the primary educators of their children.” More than just paying lip service to this core of Catholic teaching, such schools establish “relationships with families that are true partnerships grounded in the Catholic faith.” What emerges from such an effort is a “school community where the school serves parents, not the other way around, and teachers and families work together to form students in Christ.” 

Authentic Catholic classical schools are already making significant contributions to the lives of their students, families and the Church. And as more and more states are embracing “school choice” initiatives, don’t be surprised that more families will look to Catholic classical schools. And the good news is that the right to do so has been secured, thanks to a recent Supreme Court decision. 

As Chief Justice John Roberts explained in a 2020 case involving a state-sponsored scholarship program in Montana:

“A State need not subsidize private education. But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.” 

Roberts’ colleague, Justice Samuel Alito, wrote the majority opinion in another decision that bodes well for the growth of Catholic classical education in a case involving two Catholic parochial schools in California. Alito explained that the two religion clauses of the First Amendment — the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause — work together to prevent the government from interfering with decisions related to the hiring of those who are educating young people in the faith at religious schools. Known as the “ministerial exception,” this allows religious schools to freely operate consistent with their mission — something particularly important as the demands of secularism are more and more hostile to the tenets of faith. 

Catholic classical schools in America that genuinely embrace the classical education model are leading the renewal of Catholic education in our country. They are connecting young people with a heritage that, if we're being honest, too many Catholic educators have effectively disowned. A few years ago, such a transformation would not have seemed possible. This is definitely something worth celebrating during Catholic Schools Week.