Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Case for Catholic Schools (Part Two): Integrating Personal Faith in Life, Education, and Community

Following up on the discussion I began with yesterday’s post, I come today to the first of five reasons I will propose over the next week for why, all things being equal, Catholic parents should choose Catholic schools for their children.  As before, the comments are turned on.

The first and most important reason for creating and maintaining any Catholic institution is to build the faith and point the way to Jesus, to the Church that He founded, and to the Sacraments that He established.  Catholic schools serve that mission in wonderful and diverse ways.

Every faithful Catholic parent wants to raise children who will be faithful Catholics.  We earnestly hope that our children will be committed to the Church, live Christian lives, and contribute to the Catholic witness in their work and public lives.  And even the father or mother most confident in his or her own parental skills knows that we need help in doing so.  We are blessed by the support of others who are part of our Catholic community and able to offer guidance and teaching that may be beyond our own limited set of skills, to offer a perspective that had not occurred to us but that may resonate with our children, and to demonstrate through their own lives yet additional examples of walking with Christ.  Catholic schools are designed toward those very ends, with teachers who often have made considerable economic sacrifices because of their commitment to Catholic education and their heart for teaching in a faith community.

Together with the nurturing of children in our family homes, Catholic elementary and secondary schools offer the best venue for our children to learn to integrate their faith into all aspects of life.  Children in a Catholic school are encouraged to consider, express, and live their faith in each part of the day, in religion classes that are part of the regular curriculum and in their other courses.  From morning prayers in home room class to the sharing among children of what God is teaching them in religion class and on to the integration of Sacraments into the school week, the student in Catholic school learns in an atmosphere of faith.

To be sure, a person with a strong religious faith will try to do some of the same in a public school setting, as was true for many of us on the Mirror of Justice (including me) who attended public schools. And parents can play a role in encouraging their children who attend public schools to proudly uphold their faith. But we must admit that it is difficult as parents to do so effectively, at least in a manner that best facilitates children to grow up with a holistic understanding of faith life. And public schools rarely invite children of faith to be themselves in a public school environment, certainly not in any way equivalent to the manner in which public schools otherwise tout their openness to, support of, and pride in other forms of diversity.

The child in Catholic school also learns to integrate that faith as part of a faith community.  Our Catholic faith is one of community, built around both the family and the parish, in which the Catholic school should be at the heart of parish.  As Catholics in law and public life, we should advocate for public policies and legal protections that uphold the rights of parents to make educational choices for their children, most definitely including those who choose home-schooling. As Catholic parents, however, and assuming a quality Catholic parish school is available (which may not always be the case), we should participate with our fellow believers in supporting the parish school.  As I’ll discuss further on another day with respect to the other benefits of Catholic schools, home-schooling simply is not an option for most parents, especially those in difficult and disadvantaged settings.  More importantly, for today’s discussion, our faith is to be lived out with others, so that our children learn to care for their neighbors and to join with them in Catholic teaching and worship. Catholic schools make that practically possible.

Nothing can substitute for the growth in faith that comes when a teacher shows the love of Christ to the child who is struggling in class or comes from a difficult family setting.  Knowing that our children will live in community and must learn to work with others, the faithful atmosphere of a Catholic school affords the opportunity to not only learn about but practice peace-making and forgiveness after the unfortunate episode on the playground or the childish taunt in the hallway.  And how precious it is to see our children working with classmates in preparing the readings and prayers for school Mass.  Our faith should equip us for effective participation in community.  And students in Catholic school are immersed in community.

Some are quite critical of our Catholic schools, finding them to fall short of the mark (even if superior to the public schools).  In a setting where the only available Catholic parish school is woefully inadequately, I understand why a parent would lean to alternatives.  I must also say, however, that living in two major cities, and having carefully explored many, many Catholic parish schools when joining the Church and then when moving to a new city, I have yet to find one that was educationally inferior or that could justly be denigated as "nominally Catholic."  To be sure, as one would expect, some surpassed others in academic quality, and some were more vibrant or more orthodox in Catholic faith.  But not one of the Catholic schools that I visited and investigated was a discredit to the parish to which it belonged.  Sadly, I appreciate that others may have had different experiences, and I do sympathize with those who face such difficult burdens in educational choice.

In the end, however, withdrawal is not an option for Catholics (we're not Protestants after all, who start a new church whenever a flaw is identified in the existing church).  As we must resist the temptation to withdraw from parish life when we are disappointed with our local Catholic Church, I submit that the truly Catholic response is to become even more engaged so as to prayerfully and energetically work to correct any problems with Catholic education.  When we work with other parents and parishioners to strengthen the Catholic school at the heart of our parish, we just may find that God is working dynamically and deeply in that school and that the rewards, temporal and spiritual, for our Catholic kids are great!

Greg Sisk


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Greg--I think you have a lot of helpful things to say here. I can only encourage you to open your perspective to Catholic home schooling as being included in what you are calling "Catholic schools." Catholic home schools and home schooling communities bring all of the strengths that iscuss here. Some people argue that these strengths can't be found in homeschooling, and without going into all those separate points at the moment, each of the arguments fail when people look at actual overall experiences of Catholic home schooling. In other words, for example (and I don't know if you are saying this), Catholic home schooling does integrate children into their parish and community and faith and society--in many ways uniquely better than standard fare when the actual benefits of the experience are given a fair and open minded hearing. This is true not because Catholic home schooling is perfect--far from it--but because when someone compares different schooling methods, all of which are flawed in varied circumstances and locales, and he compares them according to fair and equal standards, Catholic home schooling has as much or more quality than those other methods. Only when Catholic homeschooling is held to a "unless it works 100% of the time and has no flaws" standard does it seem less ideal than when considering parochial schools under a "we're going to ignore the degree to which these schools don't reach the apex of ideal schooling" rubric. The anecdotal "I know backwards unsocialized homeschoolers" view would only be fair if someone looked at parochial schools and asked whether a greater or lesser percentage of them as compared to homeschoolers don't end up about the same as their public school peers in being socialized with similar bad attitudes towards adults, similar imbibing of materialistic and hedonistic pop culture, similar lack of social acumen to anyone outside their own grade, and similar lack of articulation and maturity to perform in the adult world. Likewise, to say Catholic homeschooling isn't an option for most people is only fair if you equally ask whether Catholic parochial school tuition is an option for most people, in particular to latino immigrants who are about to be the majority of Catholics and Catholic parents in the US. Both methods have some people who can't do it, and both have some who find that they can if they adjust and that the loss of one parent's income in staying home to teach is compensated by not having to pay nearly as much in tuition. And Catholic homeschooling ends up offering benefits in some ways to those "hard cases" that surpass other methods, for example being cheaper and offering the kind of specialized education attention that parents with special needs actually can't get better from any other option. So my point here is not to disagree with any of your points in saying that Catholic education should be the priority over public education. My point is to ask you to be open minded about including Catholic homeschooling in your concept of Catholic education. I think unless someone fully immerses themselves in the broad experience of Catholic homeschooling, their arguments "against" it are bound to be conclusory and less than ideally informed, to the detriment of furthering this important discussion.

Posted by: Matt Bowman | Jun 26, 2010 11:28:32 PM

Matt, thank you very much for contributing to the conversation. This is exactly the kind of discussion that I hoped to encourage by opening the comments on this topic. As the posts make clear, I do think parish-based Catholic schools are a superior option in building the Catholic community, in preserving the vitality of Catholic parishes, in working toward making Catholic education available to all Catholics, and in educating a well-rounded person who will be best equipped to participate in our public life while bearing a Catholic witness. Because I admire the commitment, self-sacrifice, and energies of Catholic home-schooling parents, I also do wish these were devoted instead to strengthening our Catholic schools. Throughout the history of the Catholic Church, and as emphasized in the Church's teachings, we are encouraged to come together in solidarity in the Church. Despite best intentions of most and best efforts of many, I fear the home-school movement will lead to withdrawal rather than stronger engagement. While I hope for the best and sympathize with the aims of the home-school movement, I worry that it will leave many of our children without the full armor needed not merely to survive but to thrive as Christians in this society, that it could make the Catholic witness less viable in the years to come, and that it might weaken the Church's role in our public life. If I don't convince others to instead join our Catholic schools, I hope those who take the home-schooling path will prove my fears mistaken in the years to come. In any event, I'm glad to have your ongoing contributions to the discussion. And, with respect to some (not all) of the future posts in this thread, I think you'll find considerable common ground.


Posted by: Greg Sisk | Jun 27, 2010 12:31:57 AM

Greg--I'm glad you've begun this discussion. I think upon closer and more detailed examination, Catholic homeschooling communities will be seen as achieving rather than thwarting the goals you desire. In the abstract, based upon inaccurate assumptions, someone could just as well accuse Catholic parish schools of being withdrawal from culture and society instead of being engagement (I'm not an expert on the history but I suspect that exact accusation was made in this country). And you could convincingly rebut those points. Likewise Catholic homeschooling can be similarly accused, and the arguments in reply would be just as convincing, if given as fair a chance as your parochial school argument so as to consider Catholic homeschooling's actual practice, and giving it a level argumentative playing field. On just about every educational and social virtue you wish to attain, Catholic homeschooling communities have as much capability to fulfill them as do Catholic parochial schools. Sure they have just as much ability to fall short of the ideal in practice, but so do parochial schools have not insignificant failures in the lives of their children. My point is that if we take one issue at a time and talk about how it actually works, we won't be able to dismiss homeschooling based on occasional practical inadequacies without having to dismiss parochical schools as an option as well due to its many imperfections. What I believe we can find in this discussion is that if we start with an open-mindedness that considers "Catholic education" broadly to include parochial schools and Catholic homeschooling, Catholic homeschooling will be shown to be just as thoroughly well grounded both in the Church's teaching on parental priority in education and because of (not despite of) the Church's teaching on integrating children in their faith community and society. Ultimately, what I want to emphasize is that if dioceses and parishes take this open-minded, both-and instead of either-or approach toward Catholic education as including homeschooling (which as I say is the only fair, non-conclusory approach), it is then that dioceses and parishes find themselves capable of achieving that mutual enrichment between the life of the Church and of Catholic homeschool communities at all levels. I am blessed to live in a parish whose pastor and school have chosen to see themselves as partners not competitors, superiors, or antagonists, with parishioners who homeschool; the Catholic homeschooling community enhances the life of the parish (and the parish the life of the families) in various ways, and hat experience is increasing tangibly. If more parishes and dioceses considered Catholic education as including homeschooling, rather than as assuming that Catholic homeschooling is foreign and fringe and threatening and "withdrawing rather than engaging"--they would enhance community enrichment rather than being a self-fulling prophesy against it in homeschooling, and they would achieve a basic level of fairness in simply assessing the Catholic homeschooling experience.

Posted by: Matt Bowman | Jun 27, 2010 9:26:50 AM

Thanks for confirming my estimation of you!

It's a good thing that so many other Roman Catholics have more respect for others than you do.

Posted by: Pensans | Jun 27, 2010 1:50:05 PM

Apart from the other Catholic-homeschooling points above, I want to note a separate category altogether - gifted or special-needs students. Catholic schools typically do not have the resources for such children. Catholic schools have been known to encourage parents NOT to send their children to the Catholic schools, but to use the public schools instead.

If your parish's school tells you to go to public school, then surely isn't it valid to homeschool instead? This subgroup may seem rare, but it's enough to merit separate discussion, and not to assume that a given parent is not willing to support the Catholic school.

Posted by: Catholic homeschooler | Jun 29, 2010 10:37:40 AM

"Catholic homeschooler"'s point is especially well-taken. When I wrote in the very first post that parents may have various reasons for making different choices, the situation of the parent with a special needs child was foremost in my mind. I know of Catholic parents who have used the public schools for that very reason. Indeed, if I were in that situation, I imagine I might be resentful that the Catholic school was unable (or unwilling) to accommodate my child, leaving me to the public school alternative. This is a subject worthy of additional discussion. I know of Catholic schools -- including the one that my daughter attended -- that did make accommodations for handicapped and learning disabled children. But the resources made available to the public schools, and thus the concentration of programs, talent and skilled support personnel, etc. in the public schools is difficult to match. My wife works with special education students in a public school program, a very rewarding job that she loves and the kids love her. A Catholic school ought to be the perfect setting for such a program.

Posted by: Greg Sisk | Jun 29, 2010 12:15:27 PM