In more than 6,100 Catholic schools across the country the annual celebration of Catholic Schools Week is underway. While there is much to celebrate in our nation’s unique Catholic education system, there is also much anxiety over plummeting enrollment and shuttered schools. In the past decade alone, there has been a net loss of nearly 1,000 schools.

And yet, there is cause for great hope. The long tale of decline is changing as a growing number of bishops, clergy, educators, and parents discover a solution that has been hiding in plain sight all along: Catholic educators are transforming their schools by stepping away from the secular approach. They are turning instead to the Church’s centuries-old educational tradition in the liberal arts and sciences, recognizing that it fulfills five key benchmarks that make a school truly Catholic. It is no accident that this tradition formed many of the greatest minds and holiest saints in history, because it is based in the way God made us to learn and to become virtuous.

Authentically Catholic education is not merely about college and career readiness; it must also feed the souls of children as they discover truth, goodness, and beauty in the world around them. The “formation of the whole child” teaches them how to live, not just how to earn a living. The dominant secular approach to education focuses mainly on facts and skills. It cannot reveal the wonder that “heaven and earth are filled with His glory.” 

But when the discovery of the meaning and purpose of things are restored to the classroom, students of all abilities and backgrounds are suddenly excited to learn. Parents grasp the value of this deeply human formation. Their children are seeing the world through the eyes of faith. Results have been striking. Dying schools have been rescued, and now have waiting lists. New schools have been launched. Families are returning to the Church. 

Drawing from Church documents on education in his 2006 publication, The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools, Archbishop J. Michael Miller, former Secretary of the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, identified five “essential marks” that make a school genuinely Catholic. It is becoming clear that Catholic schools cannot meet these essential marks when they adopt secular curricula and teaching strategies. Schools that are now thriving have become far more intentional about these goals through a return to the Catholic tradition of liberal arts education that weaves together faith and learning:

5 Marks Of A Truly Catholic School

1. Inspired by a supernatural vision

Without a supernatural vision across the curriculum, we cannot explain such things as eternal life, the Communion of Saints, the acts of Divine Providence throughout history, or the possibility of miracles. And, most importantly, we cannot grasp the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Secular education is merely pragmatic; it undermines the mysteries at the heart of faith.

2. Founded on a Christian anthropology

Christians understand that the human person is made in the image and likeness of God, and is destined to be with Him forever. Respect for the dignity of all human life is a principle by which we can assess events in history, literature, science, ethics, and current events. This truth also guides all our relationships. A Catholic school, therefore, should nurture all that is human in the students it serves—the ability to observe, to listen, to attend, to remember, to imagine, to imitate, to integrate, to pray, and to love, among other traits. It should avoid the secular obsession with metrics and data. Standardized testing may have its limited place, but a child’s formation cannot be measured by multiple-choice questions.

3. Animated by communion and community

The Holy See’s Teaching points out that a Catholic school is not an institution, but a community. That community should echo “the warm and intimate atmosphere of family life.” In contrast to the growing isolation of individuals in a competitive, materialist society, a Catholic school strives to make choices that promote “overcoming individualistic self-promotion, solidarity instead of competition, assisting the weak instead of marginalization, responsible participation instead of indifference.” Each and every child is a unique, unrepeatable gift of God, with particular talents and a singular vocation in life. As such, each one should be cherished, regardless of ability.

4. Imbued with a Catholic worldview throughout the curriculum

It is this benchmark which is least understood in Catholic schools, but most transformative when it is grasped. Jesus Christ is the Logos in Whom all things cohere. “In him we live and move and have our being,” St. Luke tell us (Acts 17:28). This mystery is glimpsed in each small truth to be learned, from mathematical patterns in nature to natural law principles in jurisprudence. As children discover connections across different subjects, learning comes alive. They develop habits of mind that point to a larger Truth, so they integrate faith into learning and life. In addition, a Catholic school should enculturate children into the rich 2,000-year heritage of Christianity that is their birthright. No culture can survive without passing on its own story to the next generation.

 5. Sustained by Gospel witness 

Rich content and engaging lessons alone, however, do not pass on the faith unless they are conveyed by true Christian witnesses. “More than a master who teaches, a Catholic educator is a person who gives testimony by his or her life,” according to Catholic documents on education. Teachers and administrators carry “the primary responsibility for creating a Christian school climate, as individuals and as a community. Indeed, ‘it depends chiefly on them whether the Catholic school achieves its purpose.’” It is the faith and formation of individual teachers that most powerfully transmit faith and learning.

In summary, mission-driven Catholic schools (and homeschools) offer what no other model of education can provide, at any price. They form children from their earliest years in the confidence and joy that come from knowing that they are loved beyond measure by God, who draws them to Himself through the beauty, order, and mystery of the universe He created. Nothing else can compare to this clear foundation for happiness and holiness—which is most fully provided when Catholic schools return to their own proven tradition.

Read More About Renewing Catholic Schools

“This book should be in the hands of every Catholic educator in America. It explains why renewal in our schools’ Catholic identity and mission is necessary and offers many practical suggestions on how to bring about this conversion. A bright future is on the horizon for schools that dare to be authentically Catholic.”

Most Reverend J. Michael Miller, CSB, Archbishop of Vancouver

Renewing Catholic Schools

Catholic Schools Week Podcast

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Kindermel, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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