One important announcement from the Archdiocese of San Francisco that has not received a great deal of attention is its new Office of Catholic Identity Assessment and Formation. Headed by Dr. Melanie Morey, Senior Director for Research and Consulting at the Catholic Education Institute and a long time consultant and author on issues of Catholic identity in schools, the office intends to help assess and develop skill sets among teachers in the archdiocese’s Catholic schools.
“Catholic schools,” says Morey, “are operating in a very different milieu than what they were in the old days. When I went to them for instance, the people who were in schools were almost universally Catholic, practicing Catholics, in many cases the products of Catholic grade schools, [and] were culturally Catholic as a well as religiously Catholic. They had a great deal of Catholic literacy, and lived in a culture in the United States that was on some level supportive of religion and religious education.”
That world, she explains, “doesn’t exist any longer. There are very few schools that are educating anyone in the way that religious were formed. Religious men and women, no matter what the subject matter, did integration [of their subject matter with their faith]...It was as natural as breathing for them. That doesn’t happen anymore in the same way.” Today, says Morey, “We cannot assume [that] we have the same components in place. And if we don’t have them in place, and that kind of foundational capital is not there in terms of enough of a critical mass, then you end up with bits and pieces of Catholicism, siloed primarily in religion and campus ministry. And where are we?”
So her office, as she describes it, “is about reengaging that connection, that full focus: Who are you and where are you now, and how do you assure that you are a robustly Catholic institution over time, given what’s happening in the world around you and the kinds of faculty you’re hiring and their attitudes.”
Currently the schools of the Archdiocese of San Francisco are assessed every four years by the Western Catholic Educational Association (as well as secularly by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges). Since it began in 1957 the WCEA has come to serve as an independent assessor of Catholic schools in ten Western states. Its central instrument is a set of eight standards developed in conjunction with the twelve dioceses of California that schools use to assess their current strengths and areas in need of improvement in their overall Catholic identity. According to Br. William Carriere, FSC, director of the WCEA and former superintendent of Catholic schools in the diocese of Orange for eighteen years, the San Francisco archdiocesan schools have done very well in that process. “None have not passed. None of them has ever been on probation at any time.”
Morey hopes to build on what’s already in place, inviting that reflection to a greater depth. “I’m certainly studying their standards very closely,” says Morey of the WCEA program. “And we’re going to talk to principals and presidents and faculty and create a process that is sensible and that helps them identify those things that they think create challenges for them in terms of being more robustly Catholic.”
How can teachers of every subject bring religion into their classroom? That’s the question Morey wants to help them answer. “There are components and aspects where the Catholic intellectual tradition can be woven into almost all disciplines,” she suggests. Bringing that out can only enhance the Catholic education students receive. “We are not talking about dumbing down, about being narrowly parochial, we’re about adding dimension to what is already going on in these institutions.”
She also notes the need to broaden the schools’ sense of emphasis. “I think most Catholic schools, as most Catholics in America now, are very very focused on service and justice. And certainly Catholic social teaching is a critical part of the Catholic intellectual tradition. But it’s a small part. It can be a very overdeveloped muscle in the institutions. It’s the one that Catholicism often gets focused on. And the richness of the rest of the tradition gets far less attention.
“I think that full range of the tradition needs to be explored and shared,” she continues. “I’m thinking of the Catholic literary tradition, the Catholic imagination. And I’m thinking of a good solid understanding of Church history and the Catholic philosophical tradition. I’m thinking of the vast array of Catholic spiritual traditions. I’m thinking of a wide array of liturgical experiences and expressions. Finding students where they are at [with regard] to the tradition and getting them to expand, explore, engage, just as they develop a tremendous sense of the importance of service, of being committed and connected to the rest of the world on issues of justice.”
She notes that from the media you can sometimes “get a sense of the Church as a pinched organization, very small with a focus that’s very narrow. The things that get reported all the time are lots of discussions and things about human sexuality, issues of life. And certainly the issue of life is a critically important issue, and the Church has a very particular and clear understanding that is a logical one. Whether or not people agree with it, it is coherent.
Likewise, she argues, “Who can be against justice or service? Those are very appealing ideas. They are not the things that cause people to struggle.” The greater need in many Catholic schools is to equally develop the other parts of their Catholic identity. “Everyone focuses on that [justice] because we do it so well. But we want to do all of the components so well.”
“I don’t think that people get the sense that the Church has the breadth, the depth and the beauty that it has,” she argues. “And if students don’t have the opportunity to fully know that in a Catholic school, where else are they going to go for that experience?
Looking back on her own experience of Catholic education, Morey reflects, “I think Catholic education is such a grace. In a world standing knee deep in the tears of children, Catholic education offers pathways to grace and beauty that are phenomenal. It is worth a lifetime’s commitment. It is worth incredible energy. I do this because I believe that first of all I’m standing on the shoulders of giants, the men and women (many of whom were religious) who brought Catholic education to the United States. I’ve incredible gratitude for my own Catholic education.
“Are we going to be a part of creating a tradition for those who come after us that is a tremendous resource for their generation as well?” she asks. “That’s what I’m about. I think that it’s just one of the great ministerial outreaches of the Church. And I was very pleased that the Archbishop asked me to do this. I can’t wait to get into the schools and come to know the schools and meet the people and have the conversations and see what we can do together to make what is good even better, and what is great well known.
“I think we can do good things together. At the front end of this job my assumption is people who work in Catholic schools are doing a great job, working really hard, care a lot about it, want to do it well, want to improve their capacities and skills in all dimensions of what they do, and somehow in conversation working together we can do that.”