Catholic Schools: The More Things Change…

I recently started reading Parish School: A History of American Catholic Parochial Education from Colonial Times to the Present by Timothy Walch. It’s a high-level view of the issues that have confronted the Church’s educational mission in America since the first settlers arrived in this country.

I’ve just hit the Reconstruction Era and already I am struck at how little has changed in 150 years. Then, as now, priests and bishops sought to combat the influence of the wider culture by providing for alternative educational opportunities for Catholic youth. Parish schools were seen as a particularly effective way to ensure the faith of the next generation, especially since the public education system was dominated by the nation’s Protestantism.

As a result, the country’s ecclesial leaders fretted over the fact that many Catholic children neither attended a Catholic school nor received religious instruction in the parish. In 1840 the bishops issued a pastoral letter that stated, in part,

It is no easy matter to preserve the faith of your children in the midst of so many difficulties. We are always better pleased to have a separate system of education for the children of our communion because we have found by painful experience, that in any common effort it was always expected that our distinctive principles of religious belief in practice should be yielded to the demands of those who thought it proper to charge us with error.

In other words, the country’s bishops saw Catholic education as a vital means of preserving the faith among young people in the face of a society which valued assimilation over tradition. They were also frustrated by parents who saw education not as a means of forming our children in the Catholic faith but   as a means of upward social mobility through academic learning.

Is this ringing any bells?

That we are still wrestling with these questions over 150 years later is both frustrating and somewhat reassuring. On the one hand, it would be hoped that we would have made better headway in learning how best to pass on the faith to the next generation. On the other hand, it’s comforting to know that there is nothing new under the sun and that the Church has endured such problems before.

Still, it would help if every Catholic parent and student understood better the words that Pope Benedict XVI recently related to the Catholic school children of Great Britain:

In your Catholic schools, there is always a bigger picture over and above the individual subjects you study, the different skills you learn. All the work you do is placed in the context of growing in friendship with God, and all that flows from that friendship. So you learn not just to be good students, but good citizens, good people… A good school provides a rounded education for the whole person. And a good Catholic school, over and above this, should help all its students to become saints.