The soul of Catholic education

By Ryan Mayer

Catholic schools have a reputation for excellence in all facets of formation. We know that Catholic schools excel in many areas — academics, athletics, dedication to service — the list goes on. This was reaffirmed in the recently released National Assessment of Educational Progress, also referred to as the Nation’s Report Card. Catholic schools continue to outperform their public counterparts in nearly every measurable area, and this was especially true throughout the past two years when 92% of Catholic schools opened for in-person learning › during the pandemic as opposed to only 43% of public schools.

What makes Catholic schools truly unique? What gives Catholic schools their unique identity and what does Catholic identity look and sound like in a Catholic school?

In the four benchmarks and 21 standards of the “Mission and Catholic Identity” domain, the National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools reference what we might expect to see in a Catholic school, such as a stated commitment to the Catholic mission, opportunities for prayer and service, and catechesis and formation in knowledge of the Catholic faith. A Catholic school that excels in the mission and Catholic identity domain will have an inspiring and clearly articulated mission statement that identifies the school as a Catholic school. It will offer faithful an excellent formation in knowledge of the Catholic faith and provide frequent opportunities for prayer and participation in the sacraments, especially the Mass. An excellent Catholic school will be a center of formation not only for young people, but for the adults in the community as well: for teachers as formators in need of ongoing formation and for parents insofar as the school is a partner with parents as primary educators.

These are essential and indispensable elements of excellent Catholic schools, and a Catholic school could hardly be called “Catholic” without them. But the distinctiveness of Catholic schools does not only come from the fact that there are crucifixes on the walls or that students take religion classes, or that students participate in service projects. What makes Catholic schools truly unique is that their Catholic identity permeates everything that they do.

As the document “The Catholic School” from the Congregation for Catholic Education (1977) observes, “The Catholic school loses its purpose without constant reference to the Gospel and a frequent encounter with Christ. It derives all the energy necessary for its educational work from Christ and thus creates in the school community an atmosphere permeated with the Gospel spirit of freedom and love.” (55) How does Catholic identity inform and “permeate” the other domain areas?

The document, “The Catholic School,” goes on to state that the Catholic school is a place “in which a specific concept of the world, of man and of history is developed and conveyed.” This means that Catholic identity will also touch on academic excellence and on disciplines outside theology › and religion since, as the Second Vatican Council proclaimed, “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word (Jesus) does the mystery of man take on light.”(22)

The study of history becomes not just a list of dates but an opportunity to be inspired by the way the saints transformed the world in which they lived and the study of God’s action and providence in human history. Math can be studied not only for utilitarian purposes, but because geometry is beautiful and because math is, as Galileo put it, “the mind of God.”

Athletics are not only extracurriculars or opportunities to earn college scholarships, but schools of excellence whereby young people practice fortitude, perseverance and the other virtues. Excellence in the domain of operational vitality takes on the dimension of grateful stewardship over the material resources entrusted to us and partnership in mission with stakeholders and benefactors. Governance and leadership in a Catholic school is an exercise in missionary discipleship and lived vocation.

While mission and Catholic identity is the first of four domain areas in the benchmarks and standards, it is not merely one domain area among others. It serves as the foundation of all other domain areas and is what makes the other domain areas unique and our schools unique.

Commitment to mission and Catholic identity amplifies and elevates every aspect of a Catholic school as grace elevates nature. It is the soul of Catholic education and of all the benchmarks and standards in the document.

Learn more about Catholic identity in our schools:

Ryan Mayer is the director of the Office of Catholic Identity Formation & Assessment for the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

Photo by Debra Greenblat, Archdiocese of San Francisco.