Kristi Steffen is shown teaching her second grade class at St. Rose of Lima School in Crofton last October. COURTESY PHOTO

Commentary

WATCHFUL, FAITHFUL CITIZENS: “The Identity of the Catholic School”

On March 29, 2022, the Holy See’s Congregation of Catholic Education blessed us with the publication of “The Identity of the Catholic School for a Culture of Dialog” (called “The Identity” in this article from this point forward). This document is filled with rich and important teachings. In this column I will lay a foundational summary of the document. In my next column I will share ideas for how to implement its teachings in our Catholic school communities.  

Before getting into “The Identity” it must be noted that while Church documents are valuable and instructive, they are often overlooked. That’s a shame, especially when it comes to Catholic education (for reasons detailed later). Notre Dame’s Father Ronald Nuzzi, a leader in the education field, reminds us, “The Church does not have schools with missions; the Church is a mission with schools.” In other words, without deep understanding of the essential teachings of the Church our schools are like unpotted plants; they yearn for deep roots and strain for the light of Truth … but struggle to survive in a disordered secular environment.

As “The Identity” notes, many have drifted from the mission. As a result, the data isn’t surprising: Catholic schools and their enrollment have generally trended downward for decades (from 5.6 million students in 1965 to 1.6 million today). Catholic schools in Nebraska are not immune. To draw from the great Second Vatican Council document on Christian education (Gravissimum educationis), our schools must return to the richness of the Church which “is bound as a mother to give to these children of hers an education by which their whole life can be imbued with the spirit of Christ.”

This “return to the richness of the Church” is the primary thrust of the Church’s newly released document. And while “The Identity” presents a difficult challenge, it provides reassuring lights revealing a path forward.

First, “The Identity” strongly compels those invested in education to unite. It declares “parents and their priority right in educational choices ranks first.” The document encourages those in Catholic education to serve students who are poor, marginalized, and have special needs. It’s also notable that a large portion of the piece focuses on the beautiful work of Catholic educators and our duty to empower their “exercise of personal vocation in the Church.” In short, “The Identity” underscores the value of each member, honors their complementary role, and calls on them to unite.

“The Identity” then rightly expresses that the Catholic school “is not so much an institution as a community.” We are called to reveal and strengthen the natural bonds between teachers, parents, administrators and students. Such a community approach not only enhances our schools but acts as a welcoming option for family units that are increasingly broken and isolated. This call to partnership is essential and rewarding work. Remarkably, this communal approach is countercultural as schools of all types subscribe to the mistaken belief that they alone know what’s best for other people’s children.

Our Catholic school communities are then asked to “bear witness, to know, and to dialogue” with the diverse culture as we educate the future of our Church. Here’s how “The Identity” defines these terms for the faithful:

1.) Bear Witness: “The Christian presence must be shown and made clear, visible, tangible, and conscious. Due to the advanced process of secularization Catholic schools find themselves in a missionary situation.”

2.) To Know: “A solid permanent formation that enables the ability to create, invent and manage learning environments that provide plentiful opportunities.”

3.) To Dialogue: “Evangelization that combines attention to one’s own identity with the understanding of others and respect for diversity … because true dialogue cannot be built on ambiguity or a willingness to sacrifice some good for the sake of pleasing others.”

With all this in mind, “The Identity’s” 25 pages can be summarized into this sentence: The Church’s schools must commit to an identity consistent with the Catholic faith so as to dialog in full truth and good faith with our turbulent world.

Clearly the Congregation for Catholic Education has not just instructed the faithful – it has challenged us all.

In my next column I will dive into practical, actionable steps as we rise to the challenge. Until then, I encourage educators and families to read “The Identity of the Catholic School.” Finally, as we wrap the school year please give the Catholic educators in your life some love – they’ve been nothing short of heroic!

 

Jeremy Ekeler is associate director of education policy for the Nebraska Catholic Conference. Email him at jekeler@necatholic.org.