The State of Catholic Education

Businessman and entrepreneur Frank Hanna discusses how it fits in the 21st century.


Editor's Note: On Friday, Feb. 1, on Register Radio, Dan Burke will interview Nashville Dominican Sister John Mary Fleming, who leads the secretariat of Catholic Education at the U.S. Bishops Conference on the strengths and challenges of Catholic schools during National Catholic Schools Week.

Catholic schools are a celebrated part of life among many Catholic families, parishes and dioceses. During Catholic Schools Week, Jan. 27–Feb. 2, communities across the nation will be acknowledging the schools’ valued place in the Church and society. 

More than 2 million students attend one of the 6,841 Catholic schools in the U.S. The number of schools was more than twice that many in the 1960s. That is why so many people celebrate Catholic schools, but also why so many are affected deeply when schools are closed.

In the last 12 years, 1,942 Catholic schools were reported closed or consolidated. The number of students educated in Catholic schools declined by 23.4%. These are some of the statistics released by the National Catholic Education Association’s annual report for 2011-2012. They show the struggle that many Catholic schools face to continue the work of educating the next generations in the faith.

Businessman and entrepreneur Frank Hanna III became involved in education more than 25 years ago as he sought to do his part in "turning the world around."

He served as co-chair of the President George W. Bush Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans. His quest to better the world through education eventually led him to focus on Catholic schools.

He has helped establish three new Catholic schools and has become a consultant on many Catholic educational projects in dioceses throughout the country.

Last summer, Hanna, who is the CEO of Hanna Capital, LLC, and has been in venture capital and merchant banking for over two decades, addressed Catholic leaders at the Napa Institute in a talk entitled "Catholic Education in the Next America: Where Do We Go From Here?"

Register editor in chief Jeanette De Melo spoke with Hanna, a board member of EWTN and the Napa Institute, about the state of Catholic education and what Catholics can do about it.


How did you become involved in education?

For many of us, when we are in college, we start thinking about what we want to do with our lives. I’ve always been very interested in what we Catholics would call the public good — the common good. During college, I was very interested in politics, and I still remain interested in politics, but I realized that so many of our issues start way before people get to the ballot box.

The more I looked into the issues of society, the more I became convinced that a lot of our societal failings happen much sooner; so much of the foundation of our failure was happening in our educational system. And that’s what actually got me thinking about education. I was thinking, "If you are going to do your own part in turning the world around, education is the place to start."

I started to examine it in the secular world, and the more I began to study education, the more I became convinced that the very process of educating a child is inherently a religious undertaking.

In other words, when we speak of educating children, what we are really talking about, in common parlance, is the raising of our children. … We are raising them with a specific view of the world, and we can’t escape that reality.

Every school everywhere teaches children in the context of a worldview. And once I realized that, I said, "Well, what’s the best, most accurate worldview in which to raise children?" And my conclusion was that it is within the Catholic faith. That’s what led me to Catholic education.


Were you a practicing Catholic at the time?

I was raised Catholic, and, during college, I continued going to Mass; but I also resolved to myself that just because I was baptized a Catholic as a baby did not necessarily mean I was going to be a Catholic for the rest of my life. So I went through an inquiry.

I read the Quran. I read Confucius. I read of the Hindu religion. I read about Judaism, and I read about a number of the Protestant faiths.

The more I read and the more I began to study, the more I became convinced that the theology of the Catholic Church was the only theology I could find that held together with no contradiction, either with history or reason.


You became involved in education 25 years ago; have you seen a lot of changes in the state of Catholic education in these years?

I have, and, unfortunately, so much of the quantitative news on the part of Catholic education has not been good over the last 25 years. We have continued to educate a smaller and smaller percentage of our baptized Catholic children.

There is a large body of agreement on the benefits that can come from Catholic education. And because of the respect for Catholic education, both within the Church and by so many outside of the Church, we are hesitant to engage in a spirited dialogue of how we might get better.

I think we have to be charitably provocative with one another and rigorously explore the reasons for why we have been declining.


You spoke at the Napa Institute last summer to more than 300 Catholic leaders — business people, educators, ministry leaders, religious and clergy, including some bishops. You gave a talk on Catholic education, which you yourself called "provocative." Why did this group need to hear this message?

Many times when things are not going well, we resolve, with fully good intention, that we just need to work harder and apply ourselves more diligently.

I think it is great to work harder, but sometimes we need to ask ourselves if maybe we need to do things differently. Maybe we need to push the envelope of innovation and experiment more than we have been, because, at some point, no matter how hard you have worked, if the environment in a landscape has changed, merely working harder won’t necessarily get a different result.

I fear that because we don’t want to be critical of Catholic education we’ve been primarily in a mode of "we just need to work harder," and I don’t think that is going to get the job done.

Now, I want to interject: There are many places around the country where good, healthy experiments are taking place and there is openness to innovation, but there isn’t nearly enough of it, and the system itself continues to decline.


Can you elaborate more on what isn’t working and what you think we need to do differently?

Just as an example, we cannot continue to finance Catholic education as we have in the past. Traditionally, Catholic education was free or close to free, and there was a hesitancy to charge what it actually cost, even to those who could afford it.

We built so many of our Catholic schools at a time when we were primarily a Catholic population of poor immigrants. We had free labor, in the form of religious who would dedicate their time and energy; and so the labor was much less expensive. We have got to develop a different model that takes into account that our labor costs are much higher and the costs of our physical facilities are much higher.

Traditionally, schools would be subsidized by the parish or by the diocese.

I think it is worth exploring whether parents should receive the subsidy from the parish or the diocese, rather than the school. In other words, parents who are tithing or who are parish members would receive something of a voucher that they can use at any Catholic school, thereby putting more control into the hands of the parents. Rather than subsidizing schools, we would instead be giving financial help to those parents who need it, and reconsidering whether parents who actually don’t need financial help should still be paying tuition that is subsidized. This is one example of the kind of financial modeling that we might reform.

But we also have to seriously address the collective obligation of the entire Church, not just those with school-age children, to make financial sacrifices.

We truly need a concerted effort to explain to folks in the pews, the parishes and the dioceses what we’re doing with their money and then encourage a much more sacrificial model of tithing than what we have in most dioceses.


In your Napa talk, you suggested another reform that needs to happen — a reform of mission.

At the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves: Are we really committed to this project of the Catholic formation of our children?

We know that, in the past, the Church here in the United States was indeed committed to that mission, and while it had far fewer resources, it built an incredible system of schools. So, with the fact that we are failing, I think we have to look inward and say, "As a Church, how committed are we to this?"

As with any organization, if you are really committed, there are a few things you must do.

First, you define your mission very clearly. In the case of Catholic education in the Church, we say: Our mission as the Church is to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ and to raise our children in the faith so that they can spread the Good News.

It is a biological necessity of any species that it raises its young to learn what they need to know to then be adults. We are not teaching our faith to most of our young baptized Catholics, and so there is no way they can spread the Good News to future generations if we don’t teach it to them.

Once the mission is defined, we have to make it a very high priority.

If we indeed start to focus, we would conclude that, after the providing of the sacraments, Catholic education is the most important priority we have, and until we are fulfilling our duty in this regard, otherwise well-intentioned priorities must be set aside. As long as we are not feeding our children the faith, we are failing in our most fundamental duty.

We then move on to continually measure our results; we have to look at how we are doing with an honest, realistic appraisal.

Whenever a Catholic school does not have as its pre-eminent objective leading children to Christ, and whenever it’s not doing a good job of it, it brings down the reputation of all Catholic schools. And that, too, is a difficult thing for us to face, but it’s a reality. …

Finally, the need for education in the faith must be marketed. We must continually inform and encourage parents to have their children educated in the faith.


What are the roles in renewing Catholic education — the role of clergy and bishops and the roles of the laity?

The Church teaches us that the parents are the primary educators of their children. Every baptized parent has an obligation to raise his or her children in the faith.

However, the years spent as a young parent are among the most stressful, busy times of a person’s life. And so, while Catholic education is indeed the responsibility of young parents, the leadership for how we provide it to them needs to come from people who are the age of grandparents, because they’re the ones who actually have the time to devote to these kinds of institutions.

So I think this is primarily a role for the laity, working in conjunction with the clergy, to reinvigorate Catholic schools and to not wait for their priests or bishops to figure out solutions. It’s incumbent upon our priests and bishops to be very encouraging of the laity, promoting and supporting new and innovative efforts. They must also constantly encourage parents to seek to educate their children in the faith and, in the case of bishops, ensure that schools calling themselves Catholic are indeed maintaining the mission as they ought.


In your experience, what are you seeing that is working?

First of all, I am seeing the fruit of Vatican II and of Pope John Paul II. I see the fruit of laity who have been energized and motivated by their faith to provide Catholic education. Much of that has been encouraged by Vatican II’s call to the laity to live their lives in holiness.

I think we are also seeing the fruit of the John Paul II generation. These are people who were inspired by a man who spoke of Jesus Christ to more people than anybody in history. They heard him challenge them. And they also were raised in this digital age, and so they are seeking new ways to bring about a renewal of Catholic education.

I think of it in terms of renewal rather than reform. It needs to be renewed, but renewed with innovation.

I think this new generation is one of the most optimistic aspects of the Church — and particularly in Catholic education.