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.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

What makes a school Catholic?


My posting today follows a thread developed over the past few days by Professors Rick Garnett and Kevin Walsh. Further catalysts for what I present today are the recent deaths of Professor Charlie Rice and Fathers Richard McBrien and Ted Hesburgh who dedicated their lives to the academy that identifies itself as Catholic. Regardless of personal differences on specific issues, we all share a common project of education that uses the principal modifier Catholic. Regardless of the level of education—be it primary, secondary, tertiary, post-graduate, or professional—the Church has had a long history and therefore a long participation in education. In the present political, social, and legal climates, there has been and will likely continue to be a good deal of discussion about Catholic education as Rick’s and Kevin’s postings inform us.

Recent news items have brought up many facets of the central topic of Catholic education. By way of illustration, these subjects include: the tussles between Archbishop Cordileone of San Francisco and various political, social, and cultural interests based in California and elsewhere; the concerns focused on Notre Dame’s review of the core curriculum and the role of the theology (and perhaps philosophy) requirement(s); the ability of any Catholic institution to hire (and fire) for mission; and, the concession by some institutions (e.g., Creighton and Notre Dame) to grant marital and family benefits to faculty and staff who are in same-sex relationships. As I have indicated, this list is not exhaustive, but it covers some of the more prominent and current controversies intersecting the Catholic institution of education.

Today I argue that these and other controversies emerge from a fundamental misconception of the role of the Church in institutions considered by many as a part of the Church. The list of institutions especially includes educational bodies. One major contributing factor to the existence of these disagreements and disputes is a misunderstanding of Conciliar texts of Vatican II that “the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.” (Gaudium et Spes, N. 4) The misconstructions of this phrase have led many to think that the Church needs to conform to contemporary norms rather than to study and evaluate carefully and objectively the claims posed by these modern norms. I subscribe to the latter interpretation which I submit is supported by the use of the word scrutinizing and the phrase interpreting them in the light of the Gospel that appears in Gaudium et Spes (the Latin text reads: per omnes tempus Ecclesiae officium incumbit signa temporum perscrutandi et sub Evangelii luce interpretandi) This provision of Gaudium et Spes recognizes that the Church has a fundamental task of continuing the work begun by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who “entered this world to give witness to the truth, to rescue and not to sit in judgment, to serve and not to be served” (opus ipsius continuare Christi, qui in mundum venit ut testimonium perhiberet veritati, ut salvaret, non ut iudicaret, ut ministraret, non ut sibi ministraretur). Much attention has been paid to the idea of “who am I to judge?” uttered by Pope Francis and which is suggested in this last passage quoted from Gaudium et Spes. Pope Francis has indeed been the catalyst of some interesting interpretations about not judging others. But any of us, be we clerical, religious, or lay who are or claim to be disciples of Christ have the sacred trust to evangelize the world in an authentic fashion. The objective of this claim is found in our fundamental prayer taught to us by Jesus: it is God’s will, not mine or yours, that is to be done. Doing the will of God is not judging but acting on the commission our Lord gave to us in Baptism. I shall return to this point later.

But I now return to a central matter that Rick and Kevin have introduced. One way of considering an important issue that they have presented is by asking the question: what makes a Catholic school—regardless of the level of education—Catholic?

Returning to the case of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, we see that a number of state legislators are pressuring Archbishop Cordileone to withdraw the proposed modifications in teacher contracts and faculty handbooks for the schools that are unquestionably under his jurisdiction. As one newspaper reports, several of these public servants have accused the archbishop of employing Catholicism “as a Trojan horse to deprive our fellow citizens of their basic civil rights.” Is this true? Moreover, by what authority can the archbishop do what he has initiated? I will quickly answer both questions: no, this is not true; and, he has the authority under law—civil and canon—to do this.

With regard to civil law, if the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause means anything, and it does, it means something here. Whatever the “civil rights” are that the California legislators have in mind, surely religious liberty is one of them because the Constitution and its objective interpretation that comprehends intelligible reality say so. One voice has argued that being Catholic means that the love of the Gospel mandates that we must love others “no matter what.” Well, the “what” here can mean lots of things. Christian love does not mean that you can hate someone for no reason or for a good reason. In point of fact, it does mean that you care for them and pray for them and their salvation—as we hope and pray that others will care for us and pray for our salvation if they believe in the redemption that Christ offers to those who embrace Him. But Christian loves does not necessitate, as some might imply, that you embrace what the other is doing, particularly when you know that what they are doing is inconsistent with the Gospel. Here I return to the “who am I to judge?” statement. It is true that we humans are not the judge of the fidelity and infidelity practiced in our earthly lives; God is. But, and this is an important but, the faithful disciple is called to help those who have departed from the path that leads to redemption and salvation. The human part of this offering is to acknowledge that we human beings can and do sin. If I fail to recognize and acknowledge my sins, especially when I consider seeking the sacrament of penance and reconciliation, I would hope that someone would help me along the way to recognize and acknowledge that I have committed wrong, that I have sinned. This is what a good priest or what a good and faithful lay disciple is asked to do. But to know this is one’s Christian obligation requires a solid Christian formation. This brings me back to the San Francisco controversy.

One moral theologian has argued that Archbishop Cordileone’s effort to ensure that Catholicism is taught in Catholic schools “is very, very hurtful”; however, the same theologian concedes that the archbishop is faithfully presenting Roman Catholic teaching. In short, this theologian, along with many other faithful, acknowledges that he is doing what his position requires; more importantly, he is doing what God has asked of him. One parent of a high school student enrolled in a San Francisco archdiocesan school has asserted that the archbishop’s change in teacher contract language requiring fidelity to Catholic teaching states that “some people are not O.K.—and that’s not O.K.” But the archbishop’s language is not saying that or doing that. Rather, his proposal to which this parent, and probably others, objects is trying to help all the faithful realize that we humans can turn to the good, but we can also turn to the wrong. Christ did not tell us that if we are sinning, continue to sin; rather, He told us to go and sin no more. I earnestly believe that this is what the San Francisco ordinary is trying to achieve.

When any of us fails to make the distinction between right and wrong, good and evil, let us pray that someone will help us back on the straight path to God. For this a Christian must say it is “O.K” rather than it’s “not O.K.” to make this fraternal correction. The moral theologian to whom I referred a moment ago and who appears to disagree with the archbishop nonetheless concedes that Salvatore Cordileone is unequivocally right about Catholic teaching. And should a teacher who claims to be teaching what the deposit of faith is do anything else?

To borrow from the informative series of articles authored by Michael Sean Winters and to which Rick and Kevin have referred, the Catholic faith must always be personal (and here, I add, freely elected), but it must never be private. Here the duty of any teacher who claims to be presenting accurately the deposit of faith has a distinct responsibility to teach what is true to the faith and, furthermore, to coherently demonstrate what is not.

In the Declaration on Christian Education, the Second Vatican Council reminded us that the Catholic educator—be he or she a parent, family member, friend, or school teacher—must prepare the student to promote effectively the welfare of the earthly city and to prepare the student “to serve the advancement of the reign of God.” One does not do the latter by promoting or engaging in a life that embraces sin. To borrow from the concerned parent to whom I earlier referred, that’s not O.K. What helps us at any level of our learning until the day we die—and this element of my presentation today goes to the concerns about eliminating from core curriculums the study of Catholic theology (not some ineffective substitute such as “world religions” or “the world of the occult”)—is that there remain a desire to learn what the Church teaches and why she teaches so that we become better citizens of the City of God and of the City of Man; or, to borrow from the Declaration on Christian Education also promulgated by the Second Vatican Council, that we prepare to serve the advancement of the Kingdom of God and to promote effectively the welfare of the world in which we now live. As the Council noted in 1965, this is a particular charge to the bishops of the Church.

With the passage of time, the Church, through the Congregation for Catholic Education, continued to address the nature and essence of all education which claims to be Catholic. In March of 1977, twelve years after the Council, the Congregation published a document entitled “The Catholic School” wherein it noted that, as evangelization is the mission of the Church, the good news of salvation is key to whatever she does. (N. 7) Hence, the school which bears the moniker “Catholic” is a part of this mission of salvation through its promotion of education consistent with the Catholic faith. (N. 9) Through this enterprise, those who receive a Catholic education should be “capable both of resisting the debilitating influence of relativism and of living up to the demands made on them by their Baptism.” (N. 12) Furthermore, as society becomes more secular, the Catholic school has a pressing responsibility to provide an alternative to the state monopoly of a “so-called neutral and monolithic system” of education. (N. 20) The Catholic school is prepared to meet this responsibility when all that it does is established on the “reference to a Christian concept of life centered on Jesus Christ.” (N. 33) This Christian concept of life presents a human culture that is grounded in “the total formation of the individual” that is always mindful that the human person is redeemed by Christ. (N. 36) The goal of Catholic education is not simply the acquiring of “knowledge” but “the acquisition of values and the discovery of truth” (N. 39) which, I hasten to add, is Christ Himself. In this regard, the “integration of culture and faith is mediated by the other integration of faith and life in the person of the teacher [because the] nobility of the task to which teachers are called demands that, in imitation of Christ, the only Teacher, they reveal the Christian message not only by word but also by every gesture of their behavior.” (N. 43) This is a point that Archbishop Cordileone, the proponents of the Catholic theology requirements at Notre Dame and other schools, and those concerned about the extension of marital and familial benefits to same-sex couple staff and faculty appear to be aware.

That is why the Catholic school is and must remain “the meeting place” (N. 53) where Christian moral values are understood because they are explained well. While respect for others who hold and advance alternative views must always be considered, the school cannot be Catholic unless it sees it mission as one of promoting the Christian way of life which is a service to the Person of Christ. (N. 60) To surrender to the beckonings of a relativistic, materialistic, and individualistic culture would be suicidal for the Catholic educational enterprise because such a culture is a “dangerous illusion.” (N. 64) In presenting these claims, the Congregation concluded that,


Often what is perhaps fundamentally lacking among Catholics who work in a school is a clear realization of the identity of a Catholic school and the courage to follow all the consequences of its uniqueness. One must recognize that, more than ever before, a Catholic school’s job is infinitely more difficult, more complex, since this is a time when Christianity demands to be clothed in fresh garments, when all manner of changes have been introduced in the Church and in secular life, and, particularly, when a pluralist mentality dominates and the Christian Gospel is increasingly pushed to the side-lines. (N. 66) [I return to this point in my conclusion.]


A crucial way of meeting the challenges facing authentic Catholic education is the essential collaboration of teachers and administrators with the successors of the Apostles, i.e., the bishops. In short, those involved with all the activities of a so-called Catholic school need to receive a mandate from the bishop if the school’s work is to be an authentic apostolic undertaking. (N. 71) [Of course, mandates are required by Ex Corde Ecclesiae and nihil obstats by Sapientia Christiania, but not all teachers required to have either of them do have them, but I digress.] The Congregation, aware of the nature of the Church as explained by the Second Vatican Council, asserted that each bishop has the duty to monitor the orthodoxy of the religious instruction and the observance of Christian morals in every school within his jurisdiction. (N. 73) Therefore, it is the bishop’s further solemn obligation to evaluate the advisability and necessity of any change to all apostolic works, including education, whenever the circumstances “dictate the need for a re-assessment of the school apostolate.” (N. 76) Hence, every teacher who, in the exercise of his or her freedom, accepts a post in a Catholic educational institution, is “obliged to respect” the character and nature of the school’s Catholicity and to “give their active support to it under the direction of those responsible.” (N. 80)

In October of 1982, the Congregation exercised the opportunity to revisit and further develop the issues of its 1977 statement in another document entitled “Lay Catholics in Schools: Witnesses to Faith.” Making note of the increasing monopoly by the civil authorities over education, the Congregation contended that the continued, robust existence of authentic Catholic education would provide genuine diversity to alleged claims about the necessity of pluralism in education; moreover, true enrichment in the variety of school possibilities would be a reality rather than the myth of an important governmental claim. (N. 14) In this regard, the lay Catholic teacher who remains dedicated to the faith would have a great responsibility in the communication of truth and the One who is Truth Himself. (N. 16) As the Congregation stated, “In today’s pluralistic world, the Catholic educator must consciously inspire his or her activity with the Christian concept of the person, in communion with the Magisterium of the Church.” (N. 18) To assume that Catholic education is merely another effort to proclaim and support some ambiguous form of social justice or to be nice to all persons would be erroneous. Thus, “if there is no trace of Catholic identity in the education, the educator can hardly be called a Catholic educator.” (N. 25) So, any Catholic teacher must have a vocation in the Church which transcends the notion of secular professionalism if he or she is to identified as a Catholic educator. (N. 37) This vocation is founded on proclaiming the need and the good news of salvation which authentically expands each student’s cognizance of the meaning of the world, the universe, human life, and human existence. (N. 38) In order to do this effectively and faithfully, there is the non-negotiable, non-compromising requirement of adherence to the Magisterium of the Church. (N. 38) While this is true for any Catholic educator, it is a sine qua non for the teacher of the Catholic religion. (N. 59) As a consequence of this mandate, the applicable norms established by the local bishop where the Catholic school is located must be faithfully followed. (N. 59)

Catholic educators who intellectually and morally form others must also be properly formed themselves if they are to be effective in executing the responsibilities which are theirs. Hence, there is a requisite for their adequate formation of teachers especially in the teachings of the Church. (N. 60) While the Catholic educator may possess a broad cultural and professional formation, he or she must also have and effect a correct religious formation.

Today we frequently encounter the claim that Catholics are the most educated they have ever been. In one sense, this is true in recognition of our receiving a primary, secondary, tertiary, and often post tertiary education. But the real question here is really how well do we understand our faith and the teachings of our Church; do we understand them at all? In spite of the fact that many have spent long years in a personal educational formation, can we still claim that we are superior to past generations who may not have received many if any degrees but who, nonetheless, had a superior understanding of what the Church which is what God asks? Many of the present generation have been inclined to conclude, due to the influence of a good number of teachers who claim to be Catholic, that personal sin no longer exists or is not all that important. But in fact, it does exist, and it is important. We must be most mindful of the reality of personal sin as we meet and execute the duties of discipleship; moreover, we must be further attentive of the need to confess that which exists, i.e., sin in our lives, and which takes us past the obligations as followers of Jesus Christ.

Those who are in favor of claiming that there is only the need to liberate consciences so that each person can make moral judgments without any outside and objective influence set a course for slavery to sin rather than for liberation from it. If I am the only one to judge my life, what need is there of the natural moral law? What need is there of the Church? What need is there of God? What need is there of the Magisterium? If I think the questions about right and wrong can be answered solely by me and without the Magisterium’s guidance, I become responsible to no one but myself. When this happens, the Church is dead; God is dead; but, more precisely, I am spiritually dead. This is not Catholicism, and this is why there is a need for competent Catholic educators who understand the authentic teachings of the Church so that, in turn, the may educate others in the authentic first principles of Christianity and come to know that I, you, we, are not the ones to judge, but God is and will always be the judge. And it is the inescapable duty of the Catholic educator to explain this to those who have been entrusted to his or her formative care. While it is their students who are the ones who will decide whether the societies of the future are more closely bound to Christ or not (N. 81), they need to have the capacity to make good decisions between distinguishing right from wrong, truth from falsehood.

The Congregation for Catholic Education did not stop here. It continued its work as the world of education advanced in a direction which many faithful souls questioned. Thus, in December of 1997 it issued another text entitled “The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium.” In this text the Congregation reaffirmed its earlier work of 1977 and 1982 by explaining that the Catholic school, if it is true to its vocation, is the place of an integral education of the human person where: Christ is the foundation; the school’s ecclesial and cultural identity are clear; its education is a work of Christian love; and, the institution serves the larger society. (N. 4) This general statement of the legitimate objectives of the Catholic educational institution acknowledges the difficulties that must be confronted in the present age where there is profound apathy toward moral and religious formation even within families or institutions that claim a Catholic heritage. (N. 6)

In many locations around the globe, education has become a place where neutrality to religious belief is insisted upon in order to achieve a consensus about what should be taught and what should not be taught. But the Catholic educational institution that takes its mandate seriously and faithfully must demonstrate the falsehood of such claims and be the place where all learning is unified rather than fragmented due to the fact that there is a correct understanding of the nature of the human person and why this person exists. (N. 10) As the Congregation again recognized the validity of its earlier documents to which I have referred and from which I have quoted, the Catholic institution dedicated to education must be aware of its ecclesial mission and identity as a genuine instrument of the Church that is called to evangelize. (N. 11) This is what makes the Catholic institution materially different from Harvard and West Mosquito State University. The ecclesial dimension must be central, not peripheral or cosmetic. Those who participate in the Catholic institute of learning must have in focus this delineation if it is to retain its distinction as not merely another private initiative but as “an expression of the reality of the Church.” (N. 16)

Most recently the Congregation promulgated another text in May of 2009 entitled “Circular Letter to the Presidents of Bishops’ Conferences on Religious Education in Schools” where the dicastery updated the texts cited earlier. This document is quite germane to the controversy about the faculty handbook and contracts undergoing revision in the San Francisco Archdiocese. It emphasizes the point made in the previous Congregation documents that there must be an essential institutional link between the school and Church’s hierarchy—a nexus that is not designed to perpetuate domination but, rather, to ensure that the instruction and education that are provided be grounded in the doctrine and probity of life of the Catholic faith. (N. 6) This connection is essential to the rights of all persons who seek an authentic Catholic education. (N. 7) As this last text further states, the vital relationship between the successor of the Apostles and each school ensures that the moral formation and religious education provided by the Catholic institution foster the advancement of personal and social responsibility and related civic virtues that contribute to the common good of society. (N. 10) Following this rationale, those charged with the task of administering of and teaching in Catholic schools must take care not to marginalize or minimize the role of Catholic teachings, for this would eventually lead to religious relativism or indifferentism that would greatly harm the soul of the institution and its raison d’être. (N. 12)

If these points are deemed irrelevant, the Catholic school or university simply becomes another feature in the landscape of a Potemkin village. The structure may look impressive, but its substance is counterfeit.

Allow me to conclude this lengthy posting with a thought from Christopher Dawson, a great Catholic intellect whose significant work is largely forgotten by many in the academy including the one that represents itself as Catholic. I have referred to this thought before in other contributions to the Mirror of Justice, but it is especially relevant here given the context of Catholic education. Over fifty years ago, Dawson commented on the alarming impact that the totalitarian state had on the Catholic educational and cultural enterprise. In addressing whether Christianity and its institutions would be eradicated by the modern state, Dawson wondered if the Church would again become an underground movement, because,


The totalitarian state—and perhaps the modern state in general—is not satisfied with passive obedience; it demands full co-operation from the cradle to the grave. Consequently the challenge of secularism must be met on the cultural level, if it is to be met at all; and if Christians cannot assert their right to exist in the sphere of higher education, they will eventually be pushed not only out of modern culture but out of physical existence. That is already the issue in Communist countries, and it will also become the issue in England and America if we do not use our opportunities while we still have them. We are still living internally on the capital of the past and externally on the existence of a vague atmosphere of religious tolerance which has already lost its justification in contemporary secular ideology. It is a precarious situation which cannot be expected to endure indefinitely, and we ought to make the most of it while it lasts.


Is the past that Dawson discussed a prologue to a future that is imminent? If so, what can be done? The answer to the latter question remains with those of us who share the concerns I outlined at the beginning of today’s posting and who pay heed to the thoughts of Dawson. What must be done to address these concerns is now the charge of the committed disciple.


RJA sj


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