40th Annual Catholic Schools Week — Celebration, Prayer, and Thanksgiving, Yes. Vision, Eh.

This week marks the 40th annual Catholic Schools Week (CSW). If I was to think quickly about what Catholic Schools Week usually means for me, a parishioner without school-age children, it usually consists of things like:

  • open houses at our parish school
  • including schools in the prayers of the faithful at Mass
  • having children attend Mass in their school uniforms
  • diocesan or city-wide school Masses and/or choir concerts

And, a quick read of the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA)’s “Logos and Themes” for CSW confirms that my experience covers most of what’s intended from the week. But, there’s something about this week that seems disappointing, a missed opportunity for a broader vision. How to make it more expansive in scope and vision?

First off, I’d rename it National Catholic Education Week. I think this would free us to be more visionary about the week’s focus. Keeping all of the good celebratory and promotional events for “Catholic schools” (typical brick and mortar ones run by parishes, dioceses, religious communities, lay apostolates, or other non-profit entities), but also adding in an openness to reflection on things like:

  • if/when a traditional “Catholic school” is ever not the best answer for a parish
  • how Catholic eduction can permeate other so-called “public” or non-Catholic forms of education
  • how Catholic schools are/can/should be distinctive than other forms of schooling–i.e. is the local Catholic school just like any other school but w/ some prayer thrown in?
  • the finances of Catholic schools and how different types of tuition models impact our evangelizing and social justice missions through affordability and accessibility
  • Catholic education that embodies subsidiarity, such as neighborhood or regional “home education” cooperatives or partnerships between families
  • repurposed use of Catholic school buildings within the mission of Catholic education, i.e. a parish in my city uses a long-closed school building as a site for free after school tutoring and art/music lessons for parish-area low-income children and a faith-focused community living site for young adults
  • if “Catholic Schools” as we currently most commonly see them are the only true embodiment of the Code of Canon Law’s description of “Catholic schools”
  • and many more important topics…

Second, this week should also be an opportunity for respectful critique of the modern American “Catholic schools” movement. For example, Therese Mueller (b. 1905), a German sociologist of the family who immigrated to the U.S. with her husband after Hitler’s rise, expressed concern in the post-war era,

“with parents who assumed that they need not bother with religious instruction of children, as this was the job of priests and nuns attached to a well-oiled system of Catholic schools…She saw this as leading to indifference on the part of parents [who] relinquished to the Catholic school as many as possible of their parental rights and duties. ‘They discontinued family morning prayer: for did not he children pray in school? They no longer discussed or talked of religious problems at home: what was the need, since the priest or sisters were teaching in school whatever the children had to know?’ (Harmon, There Were Also Many Women There, 260-261)

A second example, in 1964, Mary Perkins Ryan wrote Are Parochial Schools the Answer? which explored the role of Catholic schools in teaching religion, the regards to financial burdens placed on a parish, and impact on education that benefits the entire community (Harmon, p.  296-7). These faithful critiques are not simply about saying “no” to Catholic schools, but examining how they fit into changing cultural contexts. 

Today we have important research from initiatives like the Cardus Education Study, which studies both academic and spiritual outcomes. The second being especially important for linking Catholic education to authentic discipleship and evangelization. Other studies help assess to what degree Catholic schools in a particular area reflect the ethnic and/or racial composition of the surrounding area.

Thirdpromoting a focus on the social justice implications of educational decisions and policies and “Catholic education” beyond those able to attend a Catholic school. For example, Nicole Baker Fulgham addresses a primarily evangelical audience in her book Educating All God’s Children, yet her words should also echo in our ears. Is having a “Catholic school” in a neighborhood sufficient in our role of expanding Catholic education to as many as possible? Is a school evangelizing for a neighborhood? Interesting, complex, and challenging questions for people of faith to explore.

In closing, I offer this inspiring quote from Dominican Sister John Mary Fleming, the executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Catholic Education:

A Catholic philosophy of education deals with the essence of the human person as a child of God who is made in the image of God. One of the ends or goals of Catholic education is to teach children to live well here and now so that they can live with God in eternity. That means engaging culture and society in a specifically Christian way that contributes to the general welfare of society (NCR Interview, Jan 2014). 

Now that’s a more expansive vision that reaches beyond “Catholic schools” to the fuller goal of promoting Catholic education–a thought worth pondering. With that, happy Catholic Schools Week to all! 😉

3 thoughts on “40th Annual Catholic Schools Week — Celebration, Prayer, and Thanksgiving, Yes. Vision, Eh.

  1. Great post Colleen! Very insightful! The quote from Therese Mueller is amazing. That she was seeing this trend so early in the 20th century is so telling. I’m always fascinated in the cultural factors that caused the rift in faith after the Great Generation. They had such a strong faith but collectively failed to pass it on to their children. I’ve had my own private theory that the abdication of family catechesis to the parish is exactly it. I didn’t think it started that soon but obviously so.

    I too get frustrated with the gap between the vision of Catholic schools and their execution. They have so much potential but can’t live up to it. It does happen but it’s not the norm. Our parish school is in serious trouble and it keeps getting worse. It puts a huge financial strain on the parish and doesn’t bear much fruit. I know this is putting a lot on the teachers but I really see them as a huge part of the problem. They themselves do not buy into the vision. I think if there was a strong principal who knew how to cast vision and a group of teachers who were intentional disciples and were fired up to carry it out, things would be a lot different.

    Anyway, this turned into a semi-rant. Thanks for your thoughts. They are illuminating. I want to read some of these books.


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