Keeping Catholic Education Actually Catholic

by Gerald Korson

Multiple challenges face institutes of higher education today, especially the smaller private colleges whose enrollment and financial stability suffered most during the coronavirus pandemic. Catholic colleges were not immune to such troubles, and a few made the decision to close.

Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society with its stated mission to promote and defend faithful Catholic education, nevertheless sees telling signs of hope and strength among colleges and universities that maintain a strong Catholic identity despite the present crisis.

“Even as many private colleges in the U.S. are struggling — made even worse by the COVID pandemic — most of the faithful Catholic colleges that we recommend in The Newman Guide are doing quite well,” Reilly said. “Some keep hitting new enrollment records. I think it’s a clear sign that fidelity and integrated Catholic education appeal to a growing number of Catholics, especially those who have had a strong experience of Catholic education through homeschooling or strong Catholic schools.”

Troubling trends, firm standards

The Cardinal Newman Society presently is developing standards for Catholic school policies in every aspect of education ranging from admissions to athletics to personnel. They recently published standards and reviews for the use of secular materials and programs in Catholic education, Reilly noted.

“Increasingly we see Catholic schools adopting programs like Advanced Placement courses, the Habits of Mind Program, the International Baccalaureate Program, and even programs rooted in critical race theory — all popular in public schools, but not fully consistent with Catholic formation,” he said.

In many cases, such as with the Advanced Placement courses, adaptations can be made to ensure that they are appropriate to Catholic education, Reilly said. Others, like the International Baccalaureate Program, are not recommended because of an underlying relativism in its approach to education.

“The insights of our faith enter into every course of study, and to exclude them results in a distorted and sometimes unethical perspective,” he pointed out. Meanwhile, Habits of Mind co-opts and brands traditional virtues in a way that favors a public school’s emphasis on student experience and accumulating information while failing to encourage higher-level reasoning and many of the essential Christian virtues.

Critical race theory (CRT), which Reilly said is creeping into some Catholic schools and colleges along with cancel culture, is “deliberately divisive” politically and ideologically. “CRT actually rejects the achievements of the civil rights movement, which are the basis for racial harmony in the United States, as little more than keeping racial minorities satisfied with a system that inherently favors white people,” explained Reilly. “So, turning the tables of power, not racial harmony, is really the aim of CRT.”

Some CRT adherents claim the Church is “inherently racist.” But in fact “Catholic teaching and practice already offer the best solutions to division and hatred,” Reilly stated. “The truth of the human person and God’s will for communion with each of us should be the basis from which Catholic educators teach about human differences and giving respect.

“Humans were created by God for communion with Him, and we all have dignity as God’s children through Christ,” he added. “That’s what we should be teaching, not the dangerous nonsense of critical race theory.”

Return to the classics

One sign of resurgence of Catholic education at the secondary school level is the growth of the Chesterton Schools Network, which offers a classical, integrated curriculum steeped in the humanities with an emphasis on a “Three Pillars Model” committed to forming students’ intellect, character, and spirituality.

Tom Bengston and Dale Ahlquist, who founded the first Chesterton Academy in a Minneapolis suburb in 2007, developed the network after word of the Academy’s success spread and requests for help establishing similar schools came pouring in. By last year there were 27 schools operating as part of the Chesterton Schools Network across the U.S. and Canada and more were planning to open this fall. A new Chesterton school to open in Iraq joins a “sister school” in Italy as overseas network members.

Impressed by the Chesterton model, Dr. Sean Tierney, a DuPage County Chapter Legate, co-founded Chesterton Academy of the Holy Family in the suburbs east of Chicago, IL, in 2015. Operating with the approval of the Diocese of Joliet, the school enrolled 121 students in 2021.

“The beauty of this movement is that it is grassroots- and parent-led, driven mainly by a desire that parents want something more for their children and probably something that they themselves did not have growing up,” Tierney said. “The truth is that most of the free world was classically educated from Socrates to Alexander the Great to the founders of our country. This desire for the true, good, and beautiful is found in the great books of Western Civilization.”

In contrast to the “sad decline in traditional education” seen especially in public school systems, “We have put God back in the center of our curriculum,” he added.

Chesterton Academy schools strive to keep tuition affordable for parents, which translates into a “no-frills” approach in some areas. That can mean tight budgets, leased spaces, and parent volunteers organizing sports programs and extracurricular activities.

Every student takes four years of theology and philosophy, along with sciences and the humanities by way of the Socratic method, which employs questions and dialogue as a means to develop critical thinking skills. All students also sing in the choir, act in a play, and learn ballroom dancing.

“We aim to restore joy to the classroom,” Tierney said. “We do not teach just to pass a test, but to grow as a human being in mind, body, and soul.”

One thing they don’t scrimp on is the spiritual needs of the students and faculty, however. In Lisle, the Holy Family campus has a priest who celebrates daily Mass, hears Confessions, and offers spiritual direction and retreats. The Blessed Sacrament is reserved there in the chapel for devotions and private prayer.

“As parents, we were motivated to start this school to get our kids to heaven along with ourselves,” Tierney explained. “Our focus has been to encourage holiness, then vocation, and then career, and in that order. Most of our secular schools just focus on career. We want our students to consider what is God’s will for their life.”

The bigger picture

Reilly of the Cardinal Newman Society sees the Chesterton schools as part of a growing number of diverse options for Catholic education, which today include homeschool curricula, independent lay-run schools, hybrid programs, and various online education services. He finds the renewed interest in classical Catholic education as particularly encouraging. His wife, Rosario, is the founder of Aquinas Learning, a classical homeschool curriculum.

“Once rhetoric was considered the final goal of the educated person, and logic is so important today when most people lack the ability to make clear arguments and discuss issues rationally. These courses were central to a Catholic liberal arts education, yet today few students study logic or rhetoric even in college,” Reilly said.

“Recovering these lost aspects of Catholic education while also innovating with new ways of sharing expertise and helping parents fulfill their role as primary teacher is so exciting. “It’s a very exciting time to be in Catholic education.”

GERALD KORSON, editorial consultant for Legatus magazine, is based in Indiana.

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