New Focus on Catholic Identity at San Francisco High Schools

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, inspired by an assessment of U.S. seminaries, concluded that a similar study could help boost the Catholic identity of the 14 high schools under his jurisdiction.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco (photo: Lauren Cater/CNA)

SAN FRANCISCO — A decade ago, the Vatican’s apostolic visitation of U.S. seminaries led to stronger standards for priestly formation across the country.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco was inspired by that ground-breaking assessment of U.S. seminaries and concluded that a similar study could help boost the Catholic identity of the 14 high schools under his jurisdiction.

“We hear stories of children going through 12 years of Catholic education and then they leave the Church,” Archbishop Cordileone told the Register. “Somehow, we are not instilling a sense of Catholic identity in many of our students.”

“They should be the leaders of the Church,” he said, “but if we don’t give them good reasons to be Catholic, they won’t play that role.”

Now, Archbishop Cordileone is laying the groundwork for a formal assessment of the Catholic identity of the four high schools under his direct supervision, as well as10 independent Catholic high schools.

The project’s primary goal is to strengthen the transmission of Catholic faith and culture to the next generation, but the promising initiative also comes at a time when many Catholic schools are under pressure, from within and without, to relax their religious standards.

Archbishop Cordileone has hired Melanie Morey, the former provost of St. Patrick’s Seminary and University in Menlo Park, Calif., and an authority on Catholic education, to lead the nascent high-school effort. He has already met with local principals to explain his reasons for building an assessment mechanism designed to foster a distinctively Catholic educational culture.


Taking Practical Steps

“I would like to focus on what is uniquely Catholic and instill a sense of confidence in what the Church teaches,” said Archbishop Cordileone.

There are practical things the Church can do to promote a Catholic educational environment, he suggested, from incorporating great music, art and literature to celebrating the Church’s contribution to science and scheduling Eucharistic adoration.

His plan for institutional change has been shaped by the apostolic visitation of U.S. seminaries. He was involved in three seminary visits, an experience that helped him appreciate the importance of using objective criteria to evaluate an institution’s culture and curriculum.

“We had a list of questions. We looked at the class syllabus and spoke with students, faculty and alumni. The process yielded a good vision of the institution and its strengths and weaknesses,” he recalled.

Morey, also the director of the archdiocese’s newly established Office of Catholic Identity Assessment, said the process will examine every aspect of school life, including teacher formation and hiring. And she noted that the growing hostility of mainstream culture toward Catholic values requires a strong educational foundation.

“We are at a critical moment. There are lots of pressures in these schools that push them away from their Catholic character,” Morey told the Register.

“I think Pope Francis is giving us a road map: You must be absolutely crystal-clear about what the Church teaches, and you must meet the pastoral needs of the people you serve. I am not naïve; there will be resistance, but there are probably people in these institutions who will be very happy we are trying to move in this direction, and they probably haven’t been supported in a long time,” she said.


Catholic Intellectual Tradition

Morey is no stranger to the complex, often painful, process of institutional transformation.

The co-author of Catholic Higher Education: A Culture in Crisis (2006), she also helped to launch and direct the Substantially Catholic Summer Seminar, a program that helps individual faculty bring the Catholic intellectual tradition into their coursework and classroom presentations.

Morey noted that Catholic high schools and grade schools in the archdiocese already participate in an accreditation process established by the Western Catholic Education Association and the National Catholic Education Association. The Catholic Identity Assessment will incorporate some of “their excellent standards and principles.”

Morey plans to visit every Church-affiliated school in the archdiocese and then provide each with a baseline assessment of Catholic identity.

“The expectation is that the high schools will provide ongoing progress reports. A board of consulters, who are educational and Catholic intellectual experts, will work with me to refine the process,” she said.

Tim Navone, the president of Marin Catholic, an archdiocesan school north of San Francisco, welcomed the new initiative.

Navone had partnered with Morey and Jesuit Father John Piderit, who now serves as the vicar general for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, on a Substantially Catholic Summer Seminar designed for high-school faculty. The program encouraged English teachers to include authors like C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton in their syllabi and urged science teachers to discuss the Church’s early support for the scientific method.

Navone expects the Catholic-identity assessment will help many more teachers weave the riches of the Church’s intellectual tradition into their curriculum. However, the Archdiocese of San Francisco has also approved the use of the Common Core standards, the controversial curriculum that has sparked opposition from some Catholic educators and parents.


Common Core Standards

Navone doesn’t think the Common Core will create problems for for this new initiative.

“I don’t see anything that we are doing with regard Catholic identity bumping heads with Common Core,” he said.

But he also acknowledged that the Common Core is still new and that his view of the federal curriculum could change.

Archbishop Cordileone also noted the surge of criticism regarding the Common Core, but said his schools would be adding components to offer a more distinctively Catholic education.

The Common Core standards “heavily lean on science and technology. And most of our Catholic educators say … these are standards that students will have to meet to go onto higher education,” he noted. “For us, they would be incomplete: We have to incorporate humanities and religion.”

“People keep raising concerns,” he said, “but educators I have talked to don’t see this, in and of itself, as a problem.”

The bigger concern for the San Francisco archbishop is the growing tension between Catholic and mainstream culture — a problem that has sparked conflicts within Church-affiliated schools in the region.


Dioceses of Oakland and Santa Rosa

Last year, the Diocese of Oakland was in the news after a handful of Catholic teachers opposed a change to the teacher contracts. The new language asked faculty to conform to Catholic teaching in their public lives outside of the classroom.

The previous year, Bishop Robert Vasa of Santa Rosa sparked protests when he asked Catholic teachers to sign an addendum to their 2013-2014 contract that described faculty as “ministerial agent[s] of the bishop” and confirmed their opposition to “modern errors” such as abortion and same-sex “marriage.”

Archbishop Cordileone did not directly comment on those high-profile disputes, but he underscored the need for careful attention to teacher formation and hiring of faculty — two critical elements of his Catholic-identity initiative.

In his view, such conflicts reflect the widening gulf between Catholic and mainstream values, with opposing views of human freedom as the primary point of contention.

“But if the school is going to further its Catholic mission, those entrusted with furthering its mission cannot be acting against it.”

In November, he attended a meeting at the Vatican, where Pope Francis reminded the assembled cardinals and archbishops that “the Church is no longer the only producer of culture or even the primary producer of culture,” Archbishop Cordileone reported.

“There is a sense of freedom that is not in accord with human dignity, while the Church teaches that freedom is meant for love and to be used responsibly, not just to do what I want,” he observed.

“When people perceive an influencer, like the Church, putting restrictions on their freedom, then there will be conflicts.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.