A Vision of Catholic Education (From the Front Lines)

There are many interesting parallels between military operations and the operations of the Church Militant. One such area where I have some personal experience is in the area of Catholic secondary education- with 6 years of National Guard experience giving me a taste of the military. One of the biggest issues that makes genuine reform difficult is the “dog and pony show” syndrome whereupon the politics of assessing the true situation and implementing the right reforms becomes corrupted and confusion and/or bitterness sets in. The foot soldier, those closest to the direct action often have excellent insight into the immediate problems, but the chain of command- which is set up to run a smooth line of good intel to the top levels of authority- may get bogged down or corrupted by those with imperfect motives or general incompetence.

On the subject of what is wrong with our Catholic schools- or framed positively what is a proper Catholic Education Vision- I have been on the front lines. For over a decade I have been a Catholic religion teacher in American Catholic high schools. I have also taught overseas in Catholic and secular teaching assignments. What I have put together is a short Vision of Catholic Education based upon my own study and direct experience in classrooms and professional meetings.

I am one of those orthodox Catholic adult converts, if it is taught in the Catholic Catechism I believe it, and I will teach it without objection. My own conversion came about after a heavy dose of study of Papal Encyclicals- it was essential for me to see how the thread of Scriptural wisdom continues operating to this very day. I buy into what my favorite professor, Dr. Scott Hahn, said about the Catholic Church being either True or a spiritual dictatorship- not much wiggle room in my estimation. With this understanding of my perspective as a Catholic, it is my contention that the Catholic Schools problems begin with the reality that these schools are often run and operated by individuals who are either lapsed, lukewarm or dissenting in their own Catholic beliefs. Unfortunately, religion departments are also often bastions of dissent- with views on the ordination of female priests and the Church’s teachings on homosexuality being two of the biggest fronts of opposition to orthodoxy. I understand what Mark Shea, noted Catholic author/blogger, says about the striking difference between many cradle and convert Catholics- for me, as a convert, I simply don’t get Catholicism without loving adherence to Doctrine. With that being said- here is my Vision:

I have recently been reading Yves Congar’s book, The Meaning of Tradition, and I ran across a couple of passages that seem to speak to the situation of Catholic education as well as to the idea of Sacred Tradition in the Church:

“Education does not consist in receiving a lesson from afar, which may be learned by heart and recited, thanks to a good memory, but in the daily contact and inviting example of adult life, which is mature, confident and sure of its foundations; which asserts itself simply by being what it is, and presents itself as an ideal; which someone still unsure and unformed, in search of fulfillment and in need of security, will progressively come to resemble, almost unconsciously and without effort. A child receives the life of the community into which he enters, together with the cultural riches of the preceding generations (tradition!), which are inculcated by the actions and habits of everyday life.” P.23

“But all teaching aims at reaching the ‘heart’ of those to whom it is given, that is, at going beyond an intellectual understanding of an academic or scientific explanation to reach the conscience- that level of intimate appreciation and feeling, inseparable from our moral personality itself. It is in this sense that a milieu is educative. It forms a certain spirit in us, or rather it forms us, starting with our most elementary reactions, and guides us in a definite direction.” P.24

My own thoughts on how to lead a Catholic school most effectively begin with the insight that “You can’t give what you don’t have”. I love teaching, and it is because I love to teach, that I feel that I may have some qualities of leadership. I also love my Catholic faith and the orthodox theology that articulates the love and truth collaboration that is our Church and her teachings/worldview.

I believe that the biggest task for any Catholic administrator is to assemble a team of teachers, administrative staff, support staff (even janitorial staff), that have that combination of specialty competence AND a genuine enthusiasm/passion/love for serving Christ and His Catholic Church. If one feels called to service in a Catholic school setting then it should be expected that they really and truly love the Church and young people. There should be no question that a professional Catholic teacher would already be interested in reading the latest Papal Encyclical for their own personal edification, and any insights that may be applicable to their classes.

Developing and enriching an authentic Catholic identity should be at the very top of any administrative agenda- I have thought of some ways to help achieve this goal and I will give you some short summations to consider:
• Catholic Identity is #1- Teachers and staff should see the school as their Catholic mission field, passing the torch of Christian discipleship to the “little ones”. I like to say that my being “in love” with my wife and kids makes it easy for me to talk about them all day long. And it is the same with God, Christ, and His Church- when you are in love, it just comes naturally to share and bear witness to that love in all kinds of ways. There are tough times, and dry patches in our spiritual lives, but love never quits. We have to have teachers and staff in place who will reinforce the ‘real love’ aspects of being truly and authentically Catholic. I would also lobby for textbooks that better reflect our Catholic identity across subject area curriculums. For example History texts could have elements of Church history embedded, and Literature texts could feature Catholic authors. We need to help our teachers who sincerely want to bring a Catholic identity/Worldview into their specialized disciplines.

• Spirituality- Attentiveness to the need for everyone on campus to be cultivating a personal call to holiness. Praise/worship must have a primary place in a Catholic school to re-energize the faith on a daily basis. I would like to pipe in contemporary Christian music between classes and during lunch to provide inspirational energy and counter some of the secular music that continues to pull teens in with dubious lyrics and messages. A Eucharistic-centered spirituality would be encouraged by bringing in guest speakers who can give personal testimony to the youth on the value of this great Sacrament. Theology of the Body instruction would be the cornerstone of our enabling Catholic youth to combat the negative pressures in the mainstream related to human sexuality and body image.

• Social Doctrine Promotion- Reading the Papal Social Encyclicals played a huge role in my own personal conversion, and it should be a major concern in a Catholic learning center. It is part of the evangelizing mission of the Church, and it should be appealing to young people to know that they can play a key role in building a “civilization of love” at every level of society. We should have a high-energy pro-life presence as a school, and a student body that comprehends even the intricate teachings relating to bioethics. We can invite Catholic Relief Services to bring their many Fair Trade opportunities to the entire school community and beyond. If we understand the social doctrine as an interconnected corpus of teachings and worldview, we can promote something better than the narrow human ideologies which presently dominate our American political landscape. Loving our neighbor is made much easier and more efficient when we draw upon our rich Catholic social teaching tradition. I would call upon the experts in social doctrine from the Diocese, Catholic Conference of Bishops, and Pro-Life leaders to be regular fixtures on campus.

• Catholic schools as economic/environmental models for community- Like the monasteries of old and new (see lasermonks.com), Catholic schools can do better at offsetting tuition increases by developing endowment funding, and also being creative in other pursuits. If we can develop consumer products for market, we can give our students real-life experiences in business rooted in our Catholic moral approach to economics. We can also look for individuals and companies to partner with us to bring renewable energies to our schools. We could find donors for solar roofing, wind, and other sources of safe, clean energies, and use these as laboratories for the students to learn more hands-on lessons in the scientific realms.

• All-Boy/All-Girl Schools- I have taught at all-boy schools in the past (American Samoa, Hungary). I think that this type of approach may be popular with parents who are properly concerned over the over-sexualized culture we live in. Distractions related to boys and girls are nothing new, but there are advantages to be considered as we look to market Catholic schools to Catholic parents, who are looking for the best ways to protect their beloved children. This concept of boy/girl separation could also take the form of classes being segregated by gender, as opposed to whole schools.

I’m not sure where all of this advice fits in with your current mission, but perhaps it can help in making longer term strategic plans. If you would like to discuss this in more detail, I am pleased to be at your service. I will add one last item- I am exploring the market for secondary religion teachers at present for next school year. If you or someone you know shares the Vision I present here and want to explore a professional collaboration in teaching, administration in-training, ministry or organizational work- please contact me personally at tigernach2002@yahoo.com. I have my M.A.’s in Education and Theology- Theology was studied at the Franciscan University of Steubenville.

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  1. I am a 1976 graduate of an (at that time) all-male Jesuit prep school. We were taught a little about Jesus and less about the Church but a whole truckload of wishy-washy 1970s feelgoodism.

    My German teacher, one of the Jesuit priests cloistered on campus, was a leading proponent of Liberation Theology, and even took field trips with selected students to Nicaragua and El Salvador during the summers. “Selected” meant “sons of local Democrat-party bigwigs who could both foot the bill and bless the intent for the trip.”

    He once told his German class, (and this is a close to a quote as 37 years of sleep and other distraction will allow,) “The human body is ugly. There is nothing about it that should be admired.” Of course, Jesuit education being what it was, one never knew whether a well-founded reposte would get you a commendation for critical thinking, or, in the case of this particular person (who would later go on to become Dean of Students) a slam up against some lockers and a Saturday “Jug” for insubordination.

    Hence, the scar on my tongue from where I barely summoned the might to not reply “So God is ugly, too, since we are made in His image?”

    I wish I’d had the courage of conviction then that I have today. I’d have taken the slam, and the Jug, and then given the man reason to take me before the Disc board. That would have been an interesting conversation, I’m sure.

    All that aside, my greater wish is that the environment you describe had been extant instead of the one I knew. It was still a vastly superior education to the public alternatives at the time, but when placed on the bigger scale of “what could have been,” I think I feel a little cheated.

  2. This article really struck a chord for me, something that’s been on my mind the past few months but that I’ve never been able to articulate until now. The distinction between church employees and ministers has bothered me. A parish office manager has as much responsibility to represent the Faith as the pastor. In your example, a janitor as much as a teacher. When did we give up on that notion? Each level of employment in the Church has a different role, but they’re all ministerial, properly understood.

  3. Mr. Shipe—-I haven’t been so pumped after reading an article since a memorable pre-race speech by an esteemed college coach nearly 39 years ago. Your excitement and passion is inspiring on many levels, not the least of which is that your “Vision”, honed on the ‘front lines’ and clearly nurtured by Gifts of the Holy Spirit, offers Hope. I am curious and it appears fitting to ask but some like me, at the tail end of a career and thinking of ‘getting out’ of the law business, may be curious about transitions to such more important and Godly work, ie teaching. Your thoughts or insights are appreciated.

  4. My humble advice kind cthemfly is advice I am now giving myself- make sure you present yourself and your vision very clearly to any school you approach to teach for- if you don’t have an environment where you and the school’s powers-that-be are on the same page- you will be isolated and made to feel that something is wrong with you because you are orthodox and on fire. So- be clear in your resume, your interview and open in discussions with colleagues so that if you are hired you can have higher hopes that there is a team concept at work which you are going to be empowered to be part of- you can’t do it alone- Catholicism is all about teamwork- a team with many competing visions is going to be rough going and the students will have influences that take them all over the spiritual map but ultimately away from the clarity of the orthodoxy. I am in the midst of looking for a school or organization that has the type of Vision I have put forth here- I don’t want to have useless conflicts with fellow Catholics in an educational setting- they only serve to confuse the youth who really need and deserve solid guidance from Catholic elders and educators alongside their own parents. So- if you know of any schools that are all about this Vision- let me know and maybe we’ll both sign up to teach there and we will share our passionate love of our Catholic Faith! My own Vision has grown and solidified along with my personal life witness- so now I am looking for the right environment to personally and professionally thrive.

  5. A perceptive old priest once remarked to me that Catholic education was often like inoculation: you got just enough of it to keep you from catching the real thing.

  6. I’m a “revert” and a product of 12-years of Catholic school. I have 4 kids – 2 have completed 12 years of Catholic “education”; the other two are currently in our parish elementary school. The way I see it is that at some point parents – my self included – relegated the the teaching of the faith to the nuns (and a few priests that were still teaching in the high schools). As long as the kids came home once in awhile and had to memorize the beatitudes or the corporal works of mercy or somethign else they were familiar with it was assumed that they were being taught by orthodox teachers. As a result we now have multiple generations of Catholic-school-educated people who haven’t a clue as to to what the Church really teaches and why they teach it.

    Just the other night I found myself arguing with my 73-year-old mother, who also had 12 years of Catholic schooling, about whether or not hell exists! You should have seen the look on her face when I told her not only does hell exist but most people go there according to Jesus’ own words. The timing of the discussion was interesting becasue I am reading Ralph Martin’s, “The Fulfillment of All Desire” and had just read a section where he describes how the saints often spend alot of time meditating on the “narrow gate” in Matthew 7.

    Keep fighting the good fight!!

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