Virtuous Education

The Catholic Character of Catholic Schoolsby James Youniss, John J. Convey, and Jeffrey A. McLellan, (Eds.)Univ. of Notre Dame Press. 272p $28

Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the Vatican document issued by John Paul II on Aug. 15, 1990, describes the relationship that should exist between the Catholic Church and Catholic colleges and universities throughout the world. Even before that document was issued, there had been considerable discussion and debate, including some in America, about the Catholic identity of Catholic colleges and universities in the United States. The discussion centers on how Catholic identity can be maintained in the midst of the competing values of American higher education.  

The Catholic Character of CatholicSchools directs our attention to the issue of maintaining the religious character of Catholic elementary and secondary schools today, and what must be done in order to maintain that character for the future. It is the second book in a series about contemporary Catholic secondary and elementary schools. The first book, The Current State and Future forCatholicSchools (Teachers College Press, 2000), edited by James Youniss and John Convey, deals with the operational and managerial aspects of Catholic schools. Youniss is a professor of psychology and former director of the Life Cycle Institute at the Catholic University of America; Convey is the provost and the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Professor of Education at The Catholic University of America; and McLellan is a research associate of the Life Cycle Institute and editor of The Role of Peer Groups in Adolescent Social Identity.


In the present work they, along with other experts in the field, describe the cultural shift in the context of Catholic elementary and secondary education—from a homogeneous background of Catholics with a clear sense of what it meant to be Catholic, to a more complex culture that lacks that homogeneity and clarity. Timothy Meagher, who is the director of the Irish Studies program and an adjunct professor of history at C.U.A., warns Catholic education leaders to avoid trying to recover a past that is long gone, but instead to focus on developing school programs that fit the conditions of the new era. The authors provide helpful context about the history of the influences and competing values that have challenged the Catholicity of elementary and secondary schools over the past 40 years.

The education and formation of administrators and teachers—which is critically important because of the diminished number of priests and men and women religious in the schools—is also addressed by the authors. Other topics include research about the view of bishops and priests on Catholic education, preserving the character of Catholic education through the religious sponsorship of schools and the Catholic character of the curriculum. Kathleen Carr, C.S.J., currently the director of marketing and public relations for schools in the Archdiocese of Boston, highlights the relationship between the religious mission of the Catholic school and the role of the principal—whom she sees as the school’s spiritual leader. She offers suggestions for the training and support of Catholic school leaders, insisting that spiritual leadership requires an active faith life and that resources should be provided to assist in the faith formation of Catholic school principals. Otherwise it may be difficult to sustain and promote Catholic identity in Catholic schools.

Paul Galetto, O.S.A., studied the practices of 15 dioceses in the United States regarding the task of certifying teachers of religious education. Currently president of St. Augustine College Preparatory School in Richland, N.J., he suggests that those concerned with the preparation and continuing education of religion teachers should forgo the use of in-service sessions or the viewing of videotapes—the mainstay of many training programs—and provide instead formal courses in religious education. Galetto recommends that the age of the teacher, the number of years of formal religious education, the method of certification and the grade level taught are the important factors to be considered in planning a religious education program.

Catherine Dooley, O.P., an associate professor in the department of religious educaton at C.U.A., offers additional background related to both the education of religious education teachers and the curriculum. She credits church documents such as The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium (1997) with providing an organic unity and coherence for the construction of a religion curriculum, and emphasizes that religion teachers need to be familiar with those documents, especially the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994).

So in response to the question of what makes Catholic schools Catholic, the contributors to this volume would maintain: well-trained and formed principals and teachers of religious education; clear sponsorship of the school by the diocese or the religious community; a curriculum that reflects the Catholic view of the world; and the foundation built by the priests and religious men and women who have gone before us. The Catholic Character of Catholic Schools should be required reading for bishops, diocesan school superintendents, religious education directors and other Catholic school leaders.

Although Catholic schools face many challenges today, it is clear that Catholic elementary and secondary education is thriving by providing a fine education and religious formation to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Because of that success, Catholic schools are becoming more diverse. The research findings and the insights presented in this book contribute to the ongoing discussion of the development of school programs that fit the conditions of today while maintaining a school’s Catholic character. This can happen, according to Jerome Porath, if Catholic schools use the beliefs and values of their faith as the determining factors of a worldview and communicate that view of life and knowledge to their students. Of course, that it is easier said than done.

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