Veteran Educators Tackle What Is Needed for ‘Renewing Catholic Schools’

A must-read for every Catholic parent, teacher, administrator, donor, bishop and priest.

Book cover for 'Renewing Catholic Schools: How to Regain a Catholic Vision for a Secular Age'.
Book cover for 'Renewing Catholic Schools: How to Regain a Catholic Vision for a Secular Age'. (photo: Institute for Catholic Liberal Education)

Education in the Western world has for many years been a story of desertification. We daily read more stories of underachievement, the abandonment of mission for “woke” activism, and disenchanted, demoralized teachers. The pandemic only highlighted the failures of the bloated educational bureaucracy.

The news has been equally bleak for Catholic schools in the United States: In the last 10 years, 15% have closed, and enrollment is down 20% (even as non-Catholic enrollment increased by 30%). The rise of the “nones” (adults unaffiliated with any religion) and the mass exodus of Catholics from the Church suggest that Catholic schools have not been what they were created to be: a transformative encounter with Jesus Christ that in turn evangelizes the culture. 

Into that wasteland comes a timely and inspiring book from the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, Renewing Catholic Schools: How to Regain a Catholic Vision for a Secular Age. As the title suggests, the book includes a grave assessment of the current state of Catholic schools. But this is no dour, “circle the wagons” response to that crisis. 

This collection of essays is a joyful call to action from a brave and highly successful band of experienced Catholic educators. As such, the book is a must-read for every Catholic parent, teacher, administrator, donor, bishop and priest.

In his introduction, editor R. Jared Staudt frames not a grim prognosis for dying Catholic schools, but a hopeful blueprint for their flourishing: “In every chapter, the word ‘renew’ encapsulates the book’s vision: to make new again.”

In a well-researched analysis of the current crisis in education, Andrew Seeley outlines the void we must fill. In addition to citing statistics on school closings and staffing crises, he articulates their core tragedy: “Concepts such as truth, beauty, and goodness have become so vague today that young people do not know where to turn to find help… [T]hey are more inclined simply to go their own way, accepting whatever is popular at the moment.” 

Elizabeth Sullivan next argues that it was the adoption of state standards and secular methods that led to this calamity. The state, as I have also argued here before, pushes an agenda at odds with the ultimate purpose of the human person. Sullivan writes: “When Catholic schools emulate public schools and then tack on religion class, they create a dangerous dualism that undermines the unity of faith and reason. The secular model embraced by Catholic educational hierarchy and deployed by the network of more than 6,000 diocesan schools is a Trojan horse that, by design, threatens to manufacture generations of ‘nones.’”

Both Seeley and Sullivan point to the Catholic intellectual tradition and liberal arts as the advantage Catholic schools should reclaim. They cite numerous saints and Church documents, many of which I had never encountered before, as practical guides for school communities. Sullivan writes, “This Catholic intellectual tradition produced some of the finest minds and the holiest saints in the history of the world. It did so for centuries without government standards, textbooks, or standardized testing.”

Renewing Catholic Schools also examines specific elements that set true Catholic education apart. Staudt’s essay on sacramental anthropology, far from being a dry, abstract treatise, discusses how hands-on activities and even physical-education programs reflect our human dignity. Seeley’s excellent exposition of the liberal arts proposes practical classroom methods such as debate and integrating music with mathematics. 

Rosemary Vander Weele offers one of the most poignant and engaging essays, “Developing as a Teacher.” She shares her personal story of heartbreak when she realized she had lost her way as a teacher and her breakthrough moments when she encountered and began to pursue a classical, Catholic approach to her vocation: “If our students think that the point of their education is nothing more than to go to high school, college, land a good job, and make money, what will happen when they achieve these and are still miserable? … If their only memory of education is that it was a means to an end, we have failed in forming them into what God has called each of us to be.”

She encourages teachers and administrators to pray and study, to be willing to try classical approaches and, above all, to be joyful. As St. Teresa of Calcutta writes, “Joy is the net of love, by which we catch souls.” 

Weele’s joy is infectious, and the remaining chapters exude this particular fruit of the Spirit. Michael van Hecke, founder of St. Augustine School in Ventura, California, urges us to embrace the Catholic school not as an institution, but as a community of friends: “Forming young people in joy and truth, in beauty and goodness requires a special, carefully hewn community to provide a Christ-like environment. … This is not consonant with a school being an ‘institution.’ This requires people, Catholics, relationships, and, dare I say, friendships.” 

The collection profiles several Catholic schools either founded for this mission or that have transitioned from a failing secular model to the thriving Catholic liberal arts model. In addition to van Hecke’s school and Weele’s Our Lady of Lourdes School in Denver, the book surveys Holy Innocents School in Long Beach, California, and St. Mary’s Catholic High School in Phoenix. These firsthand accounts of beginnings, transformation points and growth do not shy away from the difficulties and controversies these communities experienced. They also provide clear-sighted conviction that the struggle was worthwhile.

Staudt closes with an invitation to all Catholics to join these efforts to transform and even found schools: “Our prayer is that this book will provide you with hope for the future of Catholic education, and that it makes the work of renewal look more realistic. The key for renewal is to begin.” 

Renewing Catholic Education is a gift to the Church and the perfect place for us all to begin again.