Catholic School and the Common Good

Statement of the Problem Social justice is not voluntary; it is essential so that students learn to understand that particular rights are inalienable and exist within oneself and within others (Denig, 2014). Catholic education shapes boys and girls to be good citizens, loving God and neighbor and impacting society with Gospel values (Miller, 2006). Unfortunately, this mission of Catholic school has become an endangered species in the 21st century. Declining enrollments, increasing financial pressures, and church scandals are threatening the existence of Catholic schools across the United States (Denig, 2014). Between 1965-1990 Catholic school enrollment declined significantly; the 5.5 million students being educated in the Catholic tradition decreased to 2.5 million in 1990 (Bryke et al., 1993). The number of Catholic schools decreased from 13,000 in 1960 to 7,000 in 2010 (Brinig & Garnett, 2014). The fact that so many schools have closed is unacceptable and a detriment to our communities. However, Cooper (2003) has reminded us that Catholic schools have tackled the problems of urban life and have made significant differences in the lives of disadvantaged students. “We must save our Catholic schools” (Cooper, 2003, p. 55). The Bishops have also committed to the affirmation of Christian education, “to teach doctrine, to build community, and to serve” (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1992, p. 33). The objective of this paper is not to prove Catholic education is better than public school education. Rather this discussion will bring to light the devastating realities that Catholic school closures will have on poor and marginalized students and propose a remedy to this growing issue. The evangelical nature of Catholic schools endeavors to impact the world one child at a time (Denig, 2014) in a unique and profound way (Bryke et al., 1993). Background Millions of Americans have been educated in a Catholic school system; these educational institutions have manifested in the history of the America’s dating back to Colonial times (Bryk, Lee, & Holland, 1993). Prior to the American Revolution, Catholics experienced hatred and legal restrictions, their plight led to the majority of Catholic children being educated at home; however, wealthy families sent their children to schools where they could receive preparatory training for College (Walch, 2003). The American Revolution brought hope and change to anti-Catholic sentiment and witnessed the selection of the first Bishop of the United States, John Carroll who helped to form the first American Church (Bryke et al., 1993; Walch, 2003).

From that point on, about 1815 (Bryke et al., 1993) the parochial school system was born. Anti-Catholicism was not completely gone however. German and Irish immigration to the United States brought with it harsh feelings from native-born Americans who felt animosity towards the foreign-born Catholics (Walch, 2003). The combination of immigration and urbanization resulted in the emergence of the Common school (Bryke et al., 1993). Both Catholic and Common schools sought to educate children in becoming morally good citizens; however, the Common school utilized the Protestant precepts, and this was unacceptable for Catholic families (Bryk et al., 1993; Walch, 2003). Therefore, Catholic schools found themselves in opposition with the nativists who believed that normalizing the immigrants religious and cultural beliefs was a priority (Bryke et al., 1993).

In light of this opposition, and the development of the Common School the bishops guided the progressive and spiritual lives of American Catholics through various pastoral letters (Walch, 2003). The message of the letters intensified leading to the three Plenary councils of 1852, 1866, and 1884 where the rhetoric mirrored a sentiment from the Bishops that Catholic parents had a moral responsibility to send their children to a parish school that would provide for their spiritual life (Walch, 2003). The context of Catholic education in the 21st century has shifted to one of social justice and liberation (Denig, 2014). No longer do the concerns solely focus on preserving the faith of Catholic students but are centered around Catholic education supporting the common good (Berman, 2011). Vatican II has brought to our contemporary landscape a vision of schools that is focused on a message of hope to build community and provide service (Bryke et al., 1993). This call to social justice is the chief mission and philosophy that embodies Catholic schools today. Thus, these schools have become the vehicle for which important social issues are confronted and addressed such as racism and poverty (Bryke et al., 1993). Berman (2011) has suggested that creating a more just and peaceful world will require helping our youth foster a sense of social consciousness and faithfulness to making the world a better place. “The Catholic school, organized as a community, is an irreplaceable source of service to society” (Bryke et al., 1993, p. 53). The church, through education, strives to assist its members to share the Good News and use it to transform oneself and others around them with God by their side (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1992).

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