Veteran Educator Outlines Her Vision for Reinvigorating US Catholic Schools

An interview with Mary Pat Donoghue, executive director of the USCCB’s Secretariat of Catholic Education

Catholic students smile as a family member snaps a photo on the first day of classes in Dallas on Aug. 14.
Catholic students smile as a family member snaps a photo on the first day of classes in Dallas on Aug. 14. (photo: Michael Gresham / The Texas Catholic)

Five years ago, with 33 years of experience in the field of education, Mary Pat Donoghue accepted the position of executive director of the Secretariat of Catholic Education for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). She arrived with a distinct accomplishment under her belt: As principal of St. Jerome Academy in Hyattsville, Maryland, she led the effort of transforming the flailing parish school into a thriving institution. 

Before that, Donoghue served as a vice principal and classroom teacher, as well as a consultant for the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education. A native of Washington, D.C., she holds a Bachelor of Science in elementary education from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree in education administration from Trinity University, Washington, D.C. 

Donoghue sat down with CNA to discuss her vision of Catholic education, trends affecting education across the nation, and the current priorities of the bishops.

Mary Pat Donoghue
Mary Pat Donoghue(Photo: EWTN News)


First, tell me more about your tenure at St. Jerome’s and what you brought from that experience into your current position at the USCCB. 

I started as a teacher at St. Jerome’s, and when I became principal, the school — like many, many Catholic schools — was confronting declining enrollment and rising debt. The question of whether the school had a future was very much an open question. While we had a vibrant, growing parish community, most families were in home-schooling co-ops. When the Archdiocese of Washington called St. Jerome’s into a process called “consultation” — which is just what it sounds like: bringing the community together and consulting them on whether the school should remain — those folks came in large numbers, and they said, unequivocally, we would love to see a Catholic school here. We would support this. But we don’t like it in its current iteration, and we would invite the pastor and principal to reimagine it. 

So we spoke with folks, including Dr. Michael Hanby from the John Paul II Institute … and he wrote something of a manifesto on what Catholic education should look like, and I loved it. My pastor, Father James Stack, loved it. And so we said, “Let’s go for it.”

It was a moment of conversion for me; not so much a religious faith conversion — I’m a cradle Catholic and had an adult reconversion in my 20s, so I felt very firm in the faith — but I had no idea that Catholic education is, in its essence, a really distinct and different animal. Up to that point, my image of it was to take all the best practices of current education and add a robust faith-formation program and voilà, you have a good Catholic school. 

What I discovered, though, is that the philosophy that undergirds American education writ large is utterly antithetical to what the Church teaches. 

You think about your Deweys and other philosophers, 120 years ago now, who were atheists, who denied the presence of a Logos, let alone the recognition that that is Jesus Christ, and who thought that education should not be about asking the bigger questions, but should be a very transactional process of equipping students with the skills for the work force — period, end of story. 

So that was an eye-opener, and I began to see that the Church has a unique vision for Catholic schools. I’m happy to say that not only did St. Jerome’s not close, but today it’s thriving. We added a Montessori preschool, the student body this coming year will be over 500, and it’s just really doing super well. 

But when I left St. Jerome’s, I felt very much called by the Holy Spirit to bring this experience to others, this vision and this new way of seeing that I had been given. So I worked for the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education for two years and traveled all over the country. I talked to everyone, from bishops to superintendents to principals, teachers, parents, you name it, sharing this idea. 

And then five years ago, I came to work at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and my main work here is to provide staff support to the chairman of the Committee on Catholic Education and the bishops that comprise that committee. My current boss is Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane, Washington, a wonderful man with a tremendous vision, a love of truth, a lot of courage, and willing to stand up for Catholic schools, but especially for the truth.


You speak of being transformed in your understanding of what Catholic education is. Can you articulate that in greater detail? 

Catholic education starts with the recognition that Jesus Christ is Logos and that the entire creation is an ordered whole in him and through him. So all knowledge coheres in him. In other words, there isn’t a separation or division between my study of science or math and my pursuit of Jesus Christ himself. 

Although we understand theology to enjoy that status as “queen of the sciences,” what we have come to realize is that when you recognize Christ as Logos, then other things flow from that, too, like the proper understanding of the human person. You will not arrive at a proper Christian anthropology following what secular curricula or textbooks present because they’re not based properly in that. 

Catholic education is a formative process that seeks to do a couple of things: One is to nurture in young children the habits of the mind, already given by their Creator, that lead to lifelong learning and that also help children to grow to be the person God made them to be. So to wonder, and to love, and to choose, and to think, and to sort and classify — all of these things that are human faculties that need to be developed. 

The other piece is that Catholic education also needs to be concerned with the transmission of an entire culture and an entire way of seeing. And I do think that this kind of formation has to happen in order for the large, beautiful truths of the faith to really become embedded and then connected. 

We have a huge problem, obviously, with disaffiliation, and we know the Pew survey and the lack of belief in the Real Presence, and my sense about that is we have to care for the minds and the hearts and souls of children in such a way that they see a sacramental world, that they understand the world to be imbued with both natural and supernatural elements. And the problem, if we don’t do that, if we follow the more secular model — and remember, it’s authored by people who deny a Creator and transcendence — is that things are only true if they can be observed or measured. 

This creates a problem for kids because we’re always seeking harmony in our own minds. And if you think about what that must be like for a child, easily the thing to let go of is the one that doesn’t fit, which is the sacramental reality. So this is a focus for the Committee on Catholic Education and myself for the next couple of years.


Some would say there’s a big gap between that vision and the reality of what we find at many Catholic schools. How do we close that gap?

I think we, first of all, have to approach everything as the Lord reminds us to: Speak the truth, but do it in charity. And first, to love all that is already good in Catholic schools and Catholic education. There are wonderful, faithful, holy people [out there] working. 

I’m a perfect example of how this can kind of go wrong. … I went to the University of Maryland and got my bachelor’s in elementary education; and, unbeknownst to me, I was steeped and formed in a secular progressive ideology, which is very oriented to “doing” instead of “being” and this idea of education being broken down into a measurable checklist. You know, the idea that kids should be active all the time. … I remember that very well from my college years … no talking or drawing kids out; they have to have projects; the world will end if we don’t have dioramas and glue everywhere. 

So I didn’t know any better, and I think most people don’t. We have all been cut off to some degree from our own patrimony. 

There are a lot of superintendents and many bishops who are beginning to see this and are coming together — but this is an apostolic process more than it is an institutional one. And that means it’s relational and person-to-person.


Would you say this is among the highest priorities of the bishops right now, when it comes to education? And what are their current priorities?

I’ll distinguish this in a couple of ways. The bishops are almost all united in saying we want our schools to be faithful and robust and to produce young people who are alive in their faith. So I think they share that priority. This idea of examining for the first time — what is education? What is Catholic education? What does that mean for our curriculum and pedagogy? That’s a new thing. So, for me, it’s sort of taking an existing priority and finding a new way to think about it. 

Secondly, the bishops recently voted on reissuing a pastoral letter on serving people with disabilities and mental health issues. Catholic education will have an important role to play in that. We have to expand our capacity to receive and to form children who have diverse learning needs or intellectual disabilities. I see this very much as a post-Dobbs, pro-life impetus for us, and it’s of high importance. So in the coming year we’ll see a lot of working with some of the best experts on inclusion.


This seems like a no-brainer for Catholic schools, given their mission. And yet we seem to have lagged way behind in that.

It’s a cultural mindset that has to change for Catholic educators. I can remember very clearly, as a young teacher, we all had this idea that public schools handle those things because they have the resources and they are better equipped. Where I would now see that as flawed thinking is, first of all, it’s a flawed ideology of the human person — we have the true picture, so that positions us better; but also the reality and the growth in understanding of how to serve those kids has changed so much. You don’t need huge amounts of money to do this; you need people who have the will to do it. You certainly need some resources; I’m not going to say it’s without any cost, but there are lots of different innovative ways I’ve seen Catholic educators do it. It can be done. But it’s a mindset shift. There are growing numbers of organizations out there to support Catholic schools that want to do this. I’ll be looking forward to working on that project.


You’re always looking at the whole landscape, at trends, and trying to adjust to them. What are the successes you’re seeing right now?

I think a lot of it has to do with being willing to think and imagine Catholic education a little bit differently. One of my favorite books this year has been the University of Mary’s From Christendom to Apostolic Engagement, a fabulous book, and it really describes what the Church is living through. A hundred years ago, a bishop said, “We want to build a Catholic school in every parish”; and while they didn’t quite succeed in that, we certainly saw a huge system of schools. And now we’re seeing the decline. Every year. we lose schools; and we have lost something like 65% of enrollment from 1965 to now. 

What I think is successful are the people willing to reimagine this, such as micro-schools or smaller co-op schools; or in places like the Southwest, where there isn’t infrastructure, pastors who are willing to offer hybrids where kids can come to the parish and do some of their work online and then have a catechist present and an art and music teacher present, so there’s an attempt to give a robust experience. 

I think that’s going to be the way it goes in an apostolic age. It’s just too costly to do brick-and-mortar schools if you don’t have the infrastructure. And even if you do, trying to run them and keep them up can be challenging, so looking for those new innovative ways is key. 

I will also say that schools that have recognized, as St. Jerome’s did, that the Church has a beautiful vision and adopted it, those schools are thriving, and they’re growing. I think that’s a great success story. And I would also applaud the schools that are open and welcoming to kids with diverse learning needs and diverse intellectual abilities.


We’ve seen the studies and reports of how the pandemic has affected children. Where would you say we are right now post-pandemic in terms of Catholic students’ academic success and development?

I wholeheartedly concur that many of the measures in response to the pandemic have resulted in, really, almost trauma for children. There are emotional issues; there’s isolation, which has led to an increase in psychological disturbance. Suicide rates have gone through the roof. I think that’s a call for us, and particularly our government officials and health officials, to remember that the human person is more than just subject to disease. We have emotional, psychological and relational needs as well, and those cannot be ignored. 

In recent months, we have had the news about the National Assessment of Education Progress, the NAPE scores, which are often referred to as the “Nation’s Report Card”; and Catholic schools have consistently done better than their public-school counterparts on those NAPE scores, which indicates to us a couple of things. First, generally speaking, Catholic schools came back first, and earlier, in the pandemic; they simply had to, as we cannot function without having kids in person, and I like to say that's because we recognize education is incarnational and has to happen in the flesh. It’s relational. It’s the relationship between parent, teacher and student. And if we’re going to talk about essential functions, that is essential. 

So I think Catholic schools not having lost so much time; the fact that they have a sense for the essence and the importance of the mission produced a result where our schools have done better largely on the NAPE. But I still think we need to contend with what is really the essence of what we’re set out to do. 


Let’s talk about tech in the classroom. Clearly during the pandemic, it allowed for some level of connection and academic progress. But there’s a big question about how good it is for the long run. Also, the latest neuroscience shows that screen time and tech are bad for young minds. What is your understanding of the place of technology in the Catholic educational setting right now?

I think we’ve reached a point where we have to be willing to actually step back and evaluate its appropriate use, given that we need to be about the business of formation, forming the mind to think properly, to think well, and speak well, and all of those things. 

In the beginning, there was a sense of what a marvel it all was, all we could do. But what we have come to see — and I think we have to be honest about this — is that technology actually undermines the entire process of formation because we learn and we engage the world through our senses; to experience it ourselves is what gives it meaning. The screen adds a layer, and it’s often passive. 

There is a place, I think, for technology in the hands of teachers; say if a teacher wants to project for her class the disputation of the Holy Sacrament as a piece of art, they can do that; they can quickly bring that up. Or if they want to look at birds and to contrast a cardinal and an oriole, they can do that. So there’s some use to it in the hands of a teacher. But in the hands of students, I think it has mostly been a disaster for American education.


There has been a movement in recent years towards classical education and an interest in alternative ways of educating kids. How are you responding to this at the level of the bishops’ conference? Are there studies that help us understand these needs better, and how do you see this influencing Catholic education?

The ICLE [Institute for Classical Liberal Education] has done some studies and data collection on their member schools. Classical education has become a kind of shorthand for what is the larger understanding of what Catholic education is. There has always been a preference for “classical approaches” within that because they are time-tested and consistent with the way the human person learns. “Classical” has become kind of a buzzword. My sense is that we are often calling something classical when really what we’re talking about is the original formula of education, which is consistent with how humans have always learned and has formed the greatest saints and the greatest thinkers over time. … My concern is for us to rediscover the Church’s own vision; that’s what we want to encourage people to do.


Where do parents fit into how you envision Catholic education? And what are some of the ways parents and teachers can be allies in this model? 

First and foremost, the idea of the primacy of the parent as teacher, which comes to us from Church teaching, is a guiding principle. And one of the things that has happened in education in general — not just Catholic but public school — has been this big separation, where the school is its own entity and the school and the parents are two different things. 

Part of rediscovering our own vision and philosophy of what it means to educate is recognizing the importance of the life of the family in the school and the school in the life of the family. 

In a very policy-oriented way, one way we express this is in support for parental-choice laws that are growing across the states, which comes to us from Gravissimum Educationis [the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Christian Education], is that the state must provide the liberty of choice to parents. We support this fully, that families — not systems — should be funded. 

Within the setting of education itself, it really is about reimagining that partnership, really thinking about how to bring the two together. At St. Jerome’s, we wanted to bring parents in so we started doing family field trips where a parent might organize a trip to the U.S. Botanical Garden on a Saturday and invite everyone in the class to come. The idea was to develop fellowship together and take something from the curriculum and experience it together as families. That’s one concrete example, but we definitely need to rethink the partnership.


What do you do in your role at the bishops’ conference to make all this happen? 

A lot of it is relational. I’ll take calls from bishops, superintendents, etc. There’s a monthly superintendents’ gathering; I’ll be speaking to them in just a couple of weeks. I’ll be attending the Catholic Leaders Summit sponsored by the NCEA [National Catholic Educational Association] at the end of October. I am also looking at ways to offer support more concisely. I am involved with mission implementation and advocating for parental choice. My office also handles higher education, so facilitating relationships between bishops and university and college presidents is something we work on, along with campus ministry. We are also providing resources to schools for the Eucharistic Revival, and we will be working on the pastoral plan for serving students with disabilities. So this is a little bit of what’s in my orbit. 


What makes a Catholic school successful?

John Paul II talked about Catholic education’s mission to transmit a convincing and coherent vision of life contained in this understanding of truth, the kind of truth that liberates and the true meaning of human freedom. That concept of transmitting a vision is really important. Really, we want to draw [students] into a way of living, a vision of life, a Christian Catholic understanding of how to live your life that is convincing, that they will choose, that they have the opportunity to probe and question and kick the tires a little bit in school and find it to be a better way to live. That, to me, is ultimately what we would define as success in a Catholic school.