Good News for the Church in Catholic Liberal Education
In the relentless tide of terrible news stories battering our Holy Mother Church, there is a harbinger of goodness on the horizon. So often in history we have seen the depth of the troughs of scandal, evil, disease, greed, war, and the list goes on. When things seem worst, a renewal is working through in the background, growing, gaining strength, and ready to rise when the corruption causes things to break to pieces. Who cannot remember the beautiful, humble hobbits pulling in various elements of a broken society who longed for a restoration of culture and freedom?
Today, there is a renewal picking up steam. This renewal is that harbinger of goodness, and the horizon is getting closer. If you look closely all across the country, from Alaska to Florida, New Hampshire to California, on the horizons we see the renewing of Catholic schools.
Today we have a wonderful opportunity to get front row insight into this renewal from Mary Pat Donoghue, who was recently appointed the new executive director of the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops Office of Education. For the last two years, she has crisscrossed the United States visiting dioceses and schools. Before leaving her employment at the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, I was able to garner some of her reflections from her time and experience on the road. That I see her reflections as a harbinger of goodness will become evident.
It was two years ago when she left the school she had successfully restored to hit the road “bringing to [other schools] the beautiful Catholic liberal education model that saved and restored my school,” said Donoghue.
According to the National Catholic Education Association, we have seen a net loss of Catholic schools for several years now. The reasons are many and varied, but the result remains the same: if our schools cease to exist, we lose the ability to evangelize large numbers of young people, especially those young people who, through no fault of their own, would have no other way to learn about Jesus Christ and His Church.
For Catholic school leaders, this reality is especially daunting. Saddled with multiple obstacles—crumbling facilities, insufficient revenue, declining populations—I have seen and been inspired by leaders who made a principled and courageous stand against these troubles. They have sought a better way, an approach that would truly distinguish their schools in a crowded education marketplace. They have rediscovered—like children playing in Grandma’s attic—the treasure box that is the Catholic intellectual tradition, most fully expressed in Catholic liberal education.
This is none other than our heritage, our inheritance. The principles of Catholic liberal education are just like those items in grandma’s attic—they are ours. They are also rich in importance and memory, or at least they should be.
In working with leaders who are seeking principled renewal, Donoghue found something common among the leaders, which she describes as “the presence of three dispositions”:
- openness to a path that is distinct from the one they studied in college and worked in for many years;
- faithful trust in the Church’s mission;
- and willingness to lead a community on what is often an uphill climb.
Not surprisingly, with these dispositions in their heart, Donoghue found that the pastors and principals (and bishops and superintendents) who led such a change possessed both a “firmly articulated vision and a willingness to shepherd that vision into reality.” They also understood that there was no easy way to change, no lottery ticket in grandma’s attic, just a preponderance of rich stores that, together, when accumulated and assimilated through the mental and time commitment to learn them, resulted in newness—renewal. One must, she saw,
read and learn and immerse oneself in the principles that govern Catholic liberal education. There is no shortcut or toolkit that can replace this. Without this steadfast determination, true change is unlikely to occur.
Donoghue acknowledges that change is difficult for all of us—especially for teachers who have spent years adapting to the demands placed on them by structures and standards, and who have built the cycle of lesson plans accordingly. To effect change takes a strong leader who can articulate the vision and support the teacher with encouragement and necessary training and time. Such a leader already knows the freedom and joy that can accompany the hard work of gaining the wisdom of the ages and turn that into the integral formation of a young person. It also takes a strong faith, understanding that a Catholic school must be ordered to the student according to what the Church teaches, namely, a formation in the Gospel of Christ.
It is precisely in the Gospel of Christ, taking root in the minds and lives of the faithful, that the Catholic school finds its definition (Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, The Catholic School, 1977, 9).
In this vein, Donoghue saw that such leaders:
understand that the mission of a Catholic school transcends academic standards and the acquisition of skills; it is always ordered to salvation. Once embodied, this knowledge properly orders all the other functions of the school, from its academics to its discipline, its safety to its extracurricular activities. The schools that see the best success in transition are those whose faculties see this as a calling from Christ to wade into deeper water with Him. So, the individual interior lives of teachers, as well as the communal worship together, are vitally important.
All the schools and dioceses Donoghue worked with understood and committed to this fundamental rooting in Christ. Yet, she found three very distinct kinds of communities who were trying to change. Schools in deep crisis—like her own school 10 years ago, St. Jerome in Hyattsville, Md.—had little choice but to change radically or close. She observes that “those who are in an existential crisis—as I was at St. Jerome Academy—often need to be bold and clear and explicit about the fundamental change to come. They must work to build a new image of their school.”
Other schools, in their ongoing effort to increase Catholic identity came to realize and more deeply understand that “the Church has a view not just on catechesis, but the intellectual formation of children, [which] leads them directly to Catholic liberal education.”
But the schools that faced the hardest challenge were those where everything seemed to be working; enrollment, finances, and the religious spirit were all fine. Yet, leaders in these schools have still come to understand that there is still an even better way for their students and they passionately desire to really give their students the best. These leaders need to help guide the whole community in a re-learning of our heritage, in shuffling through grandma’s attic. “They must both introduce and defend an approach to education that is at times antithetical to the current tech-heavy, standards-based programs that dominate education today.” However, the richness of the alternative, Catholic liberal education, is beyond rewarding, it is renewing.
A renewal is present and growing. It is occurring in the hearts, minds, and schools of good, normal, loving people, in cities, towns and the countryside—not in D.C., episcopal palaces, or executive board rooms. It is growing in you and me and in the work we are doing.
“And here he was, a little halfling from the Shire, a simple hobbit of the quiet countryside, expected to find a way where the great ones could not go, or dared not go” (J. R. R. Tolkien, The Two Towers).
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