February 4, 2010
In the late 1800’s, Dr. John Geddi went as a missionary to the South Pacific. For twenty four years, he worked on the island of Aneityum. When he left, the indigenous people put up a monument in his memory. On it were inscribed these words: “When he landed, in 1848, there were no Christians. When he left, in 1872, there were no heathens.” This is the work of the true Christian: to bring to others the gospel that has the power to change all people. This, too, is the work of the Catholic School that forms young people to be good Christians.
In the United States, Catholics have, in fact, made education one of their highest priorities. Long ago, Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, as well as other founders of religious communities, recognized the value of a Catholic education. Their work, continued by countless dedicated men and women, both religious and lay, gave birth to the Catholic school, one of the most influential undertakings of the Church in the United States. Today, there are 7,738 Catholic Schools educating more than three million students.
The present down-turn in the world economy has impacted enrollment in Catholic schools. Not just families, but parishes and dioceses across the country no longer have the resources to keep every Catholic school open. When the number of Catholic schools peaked in 1965, there were 6,046,854 students enrolled in 13,700 schools. Since then just about half of all Catholic schools have closed in the United States. But the role of the Catholic School remains just as valuable today as in the past.
Catholic schools are not simply alternatives to public schools or private schools. They have their own distinctive
ethos. The Catholic school pursues truth in all the sciences within the context of the Faith. It is not simply the crosses or the statues in the classrooms or the religious in habit that make a school Catholic. It is the faith that permeates every discipline and endeavor. Economics, as well as literature, science as well as art, all the disciplines of knowledge have implications for life. And it is faith that provides the ultimate answers.
Reason discovers the laws of nature and helps us use the world for our benefit. But reason can never be isolated in the search for truth. If reason is to lead us to the path of true freedom, then it can never be divorced from faith. “Only in faith can truth become incarnate and reason truly human, capable of directing the will along the path of freedom” (Pope Benedict XVI,
Address to Catholic Educators, Washington, D.C. April 17, 2008). By their very existence, Catholic schools proclaim the enriching power of the faith as the answer to the many challenges that face us.
The Catholic school has the distinctive mission of combining faith and reason in the constant pursuit of the truth. In the Catholic school, the student can hear voiced a 2,000 year-old wisdom that is truly Catholic, spanning the centuries and not bound by the constantly shifting national boundaries. Those with a solid Catholic education can, therefore, bridge the growing gap between culture and religion, reason and faith, life and morality. This is why Catholic education will continue to play a vital role in preparing students for lives of leadership for society. To form our young intellectually, morally and spiritually as Catholic is not a secondary work of the Church. It is part of the Church’s essential mission. Hence, the importance of the Catholic school.
Despite the many challenges facing Catholic schools and the great efforts to keep as many as possible open, the question is not whether Catholic education is worthwhile. A recent study has shown that young adult Catholics today are much closer in their belief to Catholics prior to the Second Vatican Council than they are to the generation after the Council. They want to pass on to their children a core of strong moral values along with a well-defined Catholic identity. They want Catholic schools. The question is not whether or not they can afford a Catholic education. The deeper question is whether
we can afford not to give a Catholic education to all our young whose families desire it for them.
Perhaps the greatest challenges to Catholic education today is not the lack of funds, but the need for all Catholics, laity and clergy, to appreciate and support Catholic schools. The Catholic school has a vital role in forming Catholics who know their faith and are able change society by it. Many parents with children in Catholic schools, like parishes with Catholic schools, need help. To keep our Catholic schools open and to enable them to flourish, expand and fulfill their mission with great distinction depends on all of us.