Does the Church Still Value Catholic Schools?

by Greg Fazzari

Is it still open season on Catholic schools?  Want to hear another mean Nun story?  How about another touchy feely religion class story?  Want a tidbit of heretical teaching to share?

If you want to read about these, I'm afraid this article might disappoint you. I've heard plenty of these stories and shared many with friends and acquaintances.  But there came a point when these stories lost some of their comic value.  I admit, I don't laugh as heartily as I used to.

I made three big mistakes, and thus I've had a change in attitude toward Catholic schools. My goal is to change your attitude as well.

My first mistake was entrusting my children to a Catholic school.  My second mistake was joining the faculty of a Catholic high school.  But my greatest mistake, was reading the Church documents on Catholic schools.

The last mistake is what this article is about.

Catholic Schools in the Wake of Vatican II

There is little debate that Catholic schools have undergone a large transformation since the sixties.  I always figured that the changes were a result of a change in focus by the Church.  However, I am now convinced that Catholic schools have become another casualty of "the spirit of Vatican II".

What should be the relationship between Catholics and Catholic schools?  Let's begin the discussion from the basics - from the Church documents themselves, in order to more clearly perceive the mind of the Church.  Thus we might have a better perspective on what our role should be in the reconstruction (or deconstruction) of Catholic Schools.

The following is a quick survey of the Churches attitude on the value of Catholic schools since the 1960's.  The documents cited are the major documents from the Church on Catholic education — one from each decade.  They are exceptional and should be required reading of anybody associated with Catholic education.  The first is an actual Vatican II document, the other three were written by the Congregation for Catholic Education.  These came out in 1977, 1988, and the third in 1998.

Gravissimum Educationis  -- Vatican II on Catholic Schools

One of the major documents of the Second Vatican Council was the "Declaration on Christian Education".  To read this document and then witness the subsequent treatment of Catholic schools since Vatican II is alarming.  The Council considered Catholic schools of the "utmost importance".  Consider the following quotes:

    Since, therefore, the Catholic school can be such an aid to the fulfillment of the mission of the People of God and to the fostering of the dialogue between the Church and mankind, to the benefit of both, it retains even in our present circumstances the utmost importance.

The council calls Catholic parents to the "duty" of utilizing Catholic schools:       

    The Council also reminds Catholic parents of the duty of entrusting their children to Catholic schools wherever and whenever it is possible and of supporting these schools to the best of their ability and of cooperating with them for the education of their children.[28]

This next section raises doubts about the elitist quality of many current Catholic schools, which raises obvious questions about the validity of tuition.       

    This Sacred Council of the Church earnestly entreats pastors and all the faithful to spare no sacrifice in helping Catholic schools fulfill their function in a continually more perfect way, and especially in caring for the needs of those who are poor in the goods of this world or who are deprived of the assistance and affection of a family or who are strangers to the gift of Faith.

The Catholic School

The Catholic School was the definitive Church document on Catholic schools in the 1970's.  This document explains what it is that separates Catholic schools from public schools:

    She (the Catholic Church) establishes her own schools because she considers them as a privileged means of promoting the formation of the whole man, since the school is a centre in which a specific concept of the world, of man, and of history is developed and conveyed.

There is a strong hint that the "spirit of Vatican II" may have had negative effect on our schools in this document.  It provides strong words for those that want to utilize money for other ("more important") ministries.  It discusses what it calls the "school problem":

     The Second Vatican Council has encouraged a more open-minded approach which has sometimes been misrepresented in theory and practice. There are difficulties in the provision of adequate staff and finance. In such a situation should the Church perhaps give up her apostolic mission in Catholic schools, as some people would like her to do, and direct her energy to a more direct work of evangelization in sectors considered to be of higher priority or more suited to her spiritual mission, or should she make State schools the sole object of her pastoral activity? Such a solution would not only be contrary to the directives of the Vatican Council, but would also be opposed to the Church's mission and to what is expected of her by Christian people. What follows emphasizes this fact.

This document also explains how Catholic schools are of service to society itself, not just the families that utilize them or the parishes the provide them.  We have to think beyond our own families and parishes:

    62. The Catholic school community, therefore, is an irreplaceable source of service, not only to the pupils and its other members, but also to society. Today especially one sees a world which clamors for solidarity and yet experiences the rise of new forms of individualism. Society can take note from the Catholic school that it is possible to create true communities out of a common effort for the common good. In the pluralistic society of today the Catholic school, moreover, by maintaining an institutional Christian presence in the academic world; proclaims by its very existence the enriching power of the faith as the answer to the enormous problems which afflict mankind. Above all, it is called to render a humble loving service to the Church by ensuring that she is present in the scholastic field for the benefit of the human family.

The Religious Dimension in a Catholic School

This exceptional document is the major Catholic School document of the 1980's.  The emphasis is in portraying Catholics Schools as a still valid ministry of the Church.  The school is called a "pastoral instrument" that performs a "pastoral service":

    As it reflects on the mission entrusted to it by the Lord, the Church gradually develops its pastoral instruments so that they may become ever more effective in proclaiming the Gospel and promoting total human formation. The Catholic school is one of these pastoral instruments; its specific pastoral service consists in mediating between faith and culture: being faithful to the newness of the Gospel while at the same time respecting the autonomy and the methods proper to human knowledge.

The Catholic Schools are not a "marginal or secondary element in the pastoral mission".  The complete Catholic school is emphasized as opposed to youth programs that are designed to supplement public schools.  It is of primary importance:

    33 At least since the time of the Council, therefore, the Catholic school has had a clear identity, not only as a presence of the Church in society, but also as a genuine and proper instrument of the Church. It is a place of evangelization, of authentic apostolate and of pastoral action — not through complementary or parallel or extra­curricular activity, but of its very nature: its work of educating the Christian person. The words of the present Holy Father make this abundantly clear: "the Catholic school is not a marginal or secondary element in the pastoral mission of the bishop. Its function is not merely to be an instrument with which to combat the education given in a State school" (20)

This document reiterates the need of the Catholic school in our society.  Catholic schools are a natural extension of the mission of the Church:

    34 The Catholic school finds its true justification in the mission of the Church; it is based on an educational philosophy in which faith, culture and life are brought into harmony. Through it, the local Church evangelizes, educates, and contributes to the formation of a healthy and morally sound life-style among its members. The Holy Father affirms that "the need for the Catholic school becomes evidently clear when we consider what it contributes to the development of the mission of the People of God, to the dialogue between Church and the human community, to the safeguarding of freedom of conscience...." Above all, according to the Holy Father, the Catholic school helps in achieving a double objective: "of its nature it guides men and women to human and Christian perfection, and at the same time helps them to become mature in their faith. For those who believe in Christ, these are two facets of a single reality" (21)

Catholic Schools on the Threshold of the New Millennium

This Church document reminds us that Vatican II was the work of the Holy Spirit, and this Council clearly valued Catholic schools:

    21. ...Thus it follows that the work of the school is irreplaceable and the investment of human and material resources in the school becomes a prophetic choice. On the threshold of the third millennium we perceive the full strength of the mandate which the Church handed down to the Catholic school in that "Pentecost" which was the Second Vatican Council: "Since the Catholic school can be of such service in developing the mission of the People of God and in promoting dialogue between the Church and the community at large to the advantage of both, it is still of vital importance even in our times".

What is Possible?

As we have surveyed the Church's attitude on the value of Catholic Schools, it is my hope that your attitude may have changed a bit.  Unfortunately, when most of us consider Catholic schools, we think only about what is — instead of what could be.

The above mentioned Church documents also give a vision for Catholic schools that is remarkably beautiful — but beyond the scope of this article.  It is difficult to live up to this vision.  However, the vision is worth grasping and holding on to.  It is this vision of what Catholic schools could be that we need to embrace when we consider our roll in the rejuvenation of Catholic schools.

The Church's vision of Catholic schools is worth fighting for!

About the writer: Greg Fazzari of Walla Walla, Washington, has four children and is a math and science instructor, basketball coach, and part-time administrator for a Catholic high school.  He has twenty-five years of experience in education, ranging from public school to community college and Catholic high school.

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