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Friday, January 23, 2015

Catholic Schools Week, 2015: Can Catholic Schools Become Catholic Again?

Written by  Bob Baker
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Catholic Schools Week, 2015: Can Catholic Schools Become Catholic Again?

With a Common Core clearinghouse of materials “authorized” for use, Catholic schools will succumb to being just like the public schools. Are you okay with that?

This week is Catholic Schools Week – it is typically held during the last week of January with many schools having activities planned for each day of the week, including Mass. This might be a good time to look around, ask questions and see what kind of Catholic Identity your (arch-) diocesan schools really possess.

If your children don’t attend a Catholic school, it might be worth inquiring what the nearest school or your college alma mater is really doing in teaching the Faith – unless, of course, you attended Notre Dame, Georgetown, BC, LMU, most Jesuit high schools and universities because you already know how much they have resisted the Magisterium because they’re usually in the newspapers often enough.


Since most schools aren’t used to being asked, “How Catholic are you?” (even by their own bishops), don’t stand for a reply that I was given. I deliberately asked a local Jesuit university’s representative if he knew if teachers had to sign a Mandatum (I knew they didn’t), to which he said he didn’t know, but he was sure whatever they taught was Catholic (again, no, there have been far too many examples hit the press these past years, and I had to turn away because I started to laugh). The poor fellow seemed more confused when I pointed out that the president of this university wasn’t Catholic. Further, I mentioned I had sent an email over to the school and hadn’t received even the courtesy of a reply – it’s been years now, so I guess they lost the email – then again, maybe they aren’t required to answer their emails when you ask about the Faith?

Q. Why did God make you?
A. God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.

Despite the Baltimore Catechism’s absence from most/all “approved” classroom textbook listings (administrators seem to hate it for some reason, especially since it works), it remains one of the best methods of introducing the Faith to our students. It also served as the basis for high schools in America during the early decades of the last century, but ask why it’s not being used today and it’s almost as if you’ve spoken some kind of heresy (expect something like, “The textbooks of today are better” or some such garbage. Anyone who has the old catechism or remembers being taught with it knows better).

“We must provide a sufficient number of programs of the highest quality to recruit and prepare our future diocesan and local school administrators and teachers so that they are knowledgeable in matters of our faith, are professionally prepared, and are committed to the Church.” From the USCCB, 2005, Renewing Our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium – as the date indicates, the bishops have been aware for some time that Catholic school teachers may need more depth in the Faith. Given recent events in Seattle, Los Angeles Cincinnati, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere, it seems that lay and religious administrators need a lot more.

For that matter, the USCCB’s ten-year review of “The Application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae” in 2011 seemed to do very little in making Catholic universities and colleges “Catholic,” if anything Catholic higher education has gotten worse. Led primarily by Jesuit schools, such as Georgetown, LMU, BC, Gonzaga, USF, Santa Clara, etc, it seems that Catholicism is no longer taught, much less manifested within the confines of the schools themselves (e.g., LGBT clubs, lavender graduations, Vagina Monologues, etc).

A priest who never heard of the Sins that Cry to Heaven for Vengeance (who has since risen to a higher position in the diocese) or another who apologized to a school staff for the Gospel readings (who now leads this school), religious sisters teaching enneagrams as part of a of teacher recertification program, and Catholic theology graduates who think we “worship Mary too much” and have never heard of the Memorare – who exactly is teaching the teachers is anyone’s guess?

One thing for sure, if you’re adamant in defense of the Magisterium, you’ll not be teaching long in a Catholic school, though this is precisely what is needed. Everyone in Catholic education should sign a Mandatum, not just teachers of religion. By word and deed all those who are or might be in a student’s eye need to set the example of what a Catholic should be.

Current Problems

Teaching for some years in Catholic schools, I have gone through a number of certification visits, which also check how Catholic a school is. Supposedly, this is an integral part of the process. Unfortunately, I don’t believe this is usually the case, especially when no one is asked how “Catholic” things are done or not. (On one occasion, the team lead was a friend of the principal.) How they can miss some obvious things stretches the imagination.

A case in point. I was once asked to teach a class on scripture for a summer school class of about 35 students (6th and 7th graders). Not knowing what they had already been taught, I decided to discover some basics before proceeding. As the principal sat in the back of the classroom, I asked such questions as, “Who wrote the Bible? What language was it written in? Who was St. Jerome? What is the Canon? How many books are there in the New Testament?” The lack of knowledge on these rudimentary subjects was pronounced and almost entirely complete. It was obvious that the principal was embarrassed, as he should have been, but, as we later talked, he wasn’t going to change things because it would mean going outside “the book” and teach what is really important.

The above example is indicative of what is happening in most of our classrooms – there is no depth. I have taught 5th grade and middle school religion in different schools and have also witnessed a high school religion curriculum that was strong on “social action,” but virtually nonexistent on fundamentals. Having been responsible for the Assessment of Catechesis/Religious Education tests in two schools for over a decade, the degree of knowledge necessary to pass is not that great of a challenge. This test is but a survey of ideas and some Catholic facts, not a comprehensive representation of what has been taught or of fundamental Catholic principles. Just a brief survey of the “approved texts” and you’ll understand there in an abysmal absence of good religion textbooks.

Ask to see some of the religion textbooks and inquire what is expected of students in the various grades. Don’t be surprised at any answer you get. If you really want to have fun and you can actually track them down, ask someone from the archdiocesan or diocesan office of education a question or two you think they should know as an adult Catholic or regarding Catholic schools (watch out for the usual stock phrases that don’t say much).

“Why make students learn their multiplication tables or their Catholic prayers by heart when they can read them on their computer devices?” - this from a principal. (I would just love to see a young student raise their hand during Mass and say something like, “Wait, Father, I can’t seem to access the file for the Confiteor.” Or in a classroom, “I don’t know how to answer your question, teacher, the server is down and you know I don’t have to know what 9 x 7 is!”)

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This same administrator allowed students to wear crucifixes and holy medals at school, but wrote in the school guide that it was discouraged. Some classrooms also looked “too Catholic,” too. Is this where we’re going? Do we really want to go there? There is a concerted and deliberate effort to use computers for everything under the guise of ‘Technology will set You Free.” The de-personalization of Catholic education is well under way in Catholic schools.

I’ve seen administrators plant their own choice of principals and teachers into schools (instead of following their own hiring guidelines) and pay teachers at a scale lower than even their published rates. When people need jobs, they’ll take it.

I’ve seen promises made to schools to financially assist them, only to be reneged later. I’ve seen inside a priest’s desk (he was getting a newer one) that had a homosexual magazine remaining in a drawer. I’ve been told by a priest that he thinks about 60% of the priests in the diocese are homosexuals – some known or suspected ones have risen in the local Church hierarchy. Has any bishop taken steps to rid his diocese of these people who ignore Church teachings and frankly might put our children into danger?

How to Stir the Pot

I have encountered clergy, principals and teachers who have belittled and actually apologized for the Magisterium and have pushed out those who attempted to bolster the Catholicity of the students in favor of others who attended the local Catholic-In-Name-Only university or who are weak and will abide by their views (usually new teachers).

The circumstances in which teachers have to endure are often almost unbearable. Though an increasing number of Catholic schools require a bachelor’s degree and teaching credentials, the working conditions, salary and benefits are decidedly grossly unfair.

Even talking about unionization immediately puts one on the “watch-list” and subject a teacher to public intimidation, though every pope since Leo XIII has stated that this is a right of all workers (and most bishops openly agree but not when it applies to their diocese – that’s somehow entirely different).

Teachers are paid an average of 20% less than their public school counterparts (in one diocese, it’s 50%) and work considerably more hours. Benefits vary widely across the country. Justifying this by administrators and pastors can be a depressing exercise in self-delusion and sexism (e.g., “The teacher will get married sometime and will then get his benefits.”) and hypocrisy (e.g., “The priests need Medical Plan X, while teachers can make do with a lesser plan.”)

The obvious benefit of a Catholic union would be to stop the arbitrary and capricious use of the At-Will contracts and the mitigation of personality differences, pay and benefits equity, break up the fiefdoms of the education departments, the amount of hours teachers must spend doing far more than their counterparts, retaining good teachers (who might otherwise join the 20% or so of the people who annually move on to public schools, not to mention those who just leave the profession) and freely being able to defend the Faith. The bishops are either blind to what goes on in their schools or they just don’t care. Either way, it’s not Catholic and since there is no recourse, what other method exists to compel change?

We have lost generations of Catholics due to poor catecheses and this will continue unless something is done now. Catholic education is too important, especially in these times, to undercut their value and intrinsic worth to the Church today and in the future.

The imposition of Common Core by many dioceses was more an imperial edict than a thoughtful reflection of the path where Catholic schools should proceed. In typical fashion, the diocesan education departments were heavily influenced by the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA), who worked with Loyola Chicago to bring all the Catholic schools in-line

Did most of the diocesan education departments talk about Common Core with the “prime educators” of their children, the parents? They apparently forgot, after all these administrators really know what’s best and they just like to say that the parents matter. Consult with teachers? Not necessary, because it’s the administrators’ way or the highway for teachers and they know it (so sit down and shut up is all but said). With a Common Core clearinghouse of materials “authorized” for use, Catholic schools will succumb to being just like the public schools. And, as a recent report indicates, the average college freshmen now only reads at a seventh-grade level, which also means he/she probably can’t read their high school textbook and the dumbing down of standards is bound to continue as a result. Teaching to the test is but another aspect of Common Core.

As Catholic schools rush towards Common Core and the religion of technology as a cure-all, teachers are bombarded with such things as curriculum mapping and using videos in place of words to express themselves and as writing assignments. The problem with this (in addition to what has already been written) is that public schools are doing this, too. The more Catholic schools look and act like public schools, the more they will become nothing more than public schools that you pay more for, relegating religion to a secondary subject or eradicating its existence.

What can be done?

One suggestion and one that always meets with opposition from the “powers that be”: is to require a comprehensive exit exam on Catholicism in middle school, high school and college/universities. This scares principals, deans, presidents and diocesan administrators because a first-rate comprehensive exam that changes its content every year is sure to point out how lacking in "Catholic Identity" their schools are. These administrators know that their Religion teachers are usually part of the touchy-feely crowd (as they are themselves) and they root-out those who actually try to give students a foundation in Catholicism in a variety of ways (it’s sometimes dangerous to teach the Faith, even in a Catholic school!).

It is also common for administrators to give only lip-service to Religion as a subject because math and science (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) are far more important subjects among their colleagues in primary and secondary schools, for college entrance exams and are used to show how good the individual school is compared to the local public schools. Common Core will undoubtedly change this, too – it can’t help but become worse because Catholic administrators MUST show that they are better than their public school counterparts.

Insure that the pastor is in favor of a school. This is not as obvious as it appears. There are many who did not go to a Catholic school growing up (especially the foreign born) so they don’t understand what is happening in the schools they are responsible for, except that it’s a financial drain on the parish. (I have known pastors who have said they wished they didn’t have a school.)

Bishops and, by extension, priests were once charged with ensuring that every child who wanted to attend a Catholic school could do so, but money always seems to get in the way (after all, the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore was almost exactly 130 years ago and mandated this). Having always taught in urban schools, money is always a problem and most parents have a tough time paying tuition. I had to take my own children out of a Catholic school because of financial reasons. The contrast between dropping millions of dollars down for a cathedral and keeping schools afloat is one that bishops justify to themselves, but not the laity - don’t buy it.

How many dioceses left the NCEA when it became known that certain keynote speakers had non-Catholic views? None? (This is also a problem at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress every year.) How about when they discovered the Gates Foundation had given money to this organization so they could sell Common Core to Catholic education offices? None? Let’s not also forget the MILLIONS of dollars that the Cristo Rey Network received from the Gates Foundation over the past decade that few seem to know or want to talk about.

What the Church teaches, Catholics are supposed to believe – not a portion, not a little, but all. To give a platform to those who do not respect our beliefs is inimical to Catholic teaching and gives scandal. School superintendents and bishops share a responsibility in determining what persons and organizations their schools should associate with. Surely those that are pro-abortion, pro-Same Sex Marriage, pro-contraception, etc, shouldn’t be asked to talk with those responsible for conveying the Faith to students in a Catholic setting, to be on their school boards, nor should they be teaching or administering Catholic schools.

I happen to like Catholic schools. My concern is that they are dying on the vine through neglect, cronyism and atrophy. Neglect by bishops whose concerns don’t really include Catholic schools. Cronyism by education departments that are more concerned with protecting their fiefdoms. Atrophy by principals who don’t see that students’ minds are not expanded by technology, but by awaking the knowledge of God’s presence in the classroom and everywhere.

Doing what is right has consequences…Not doing anything has even more.

Post Script:

I revamped one school’s Religion program for the two middle school grades to include altar serving, ecclesiastical Latin, Catholic History, field trips and (especially) increasing student knowledge of the basic tenets of our Faith. The latter included such items as in-depth knowledge of the Deadly Sins, the Theological Virtues, Transubstantiation, etc; student-created projects, such as creating newspaper articles on past Church councils; and basic discussions on St. Thomas Aquinas (Quinque Viae) and St. Augustine (Confessions). I required 8th grade students to read a piece of fictional literature that dealt with our Faith (Cronin's The Keys of the Kingdom) as an in-class reading book. All of these tasks sought to convey to students and parents, alike, that Religion is the prime subject in a Catholic school and the raison d’être for their presence. What I desired for all my students was for them to be able to defend the Faith and inculcate what they learned into their daily lives. The mid-year religion test always found my classes scoring well above the national average.

Not to neglect the other subjects I was responsible for, tests given at the beginning of the school year showed my 8th grade students scoring at the 11th grade level in Science and the 10th grade level in Math.

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Last modified on Friday, January 23, 2015