Apart from the crucifix above the classroom door, it is often difficult to distinguish Catholic schools from secular schools these days. What were once reliable redoubts of faith, formation and culture for America’s Catholic youth against an emerging secular juggernaut have themselves been absorbed into the miasma of the Progressive status quo. Those vestiges of Catholicism that remain are often co-opted to accommodate and reflect the language, vocabulary and aims of secularism, not Catholicism.

Of course, administrators and teachers may be well-intentioned, sincere and qualified (that is, according to secular, workforce-based standards set by state “experts”) but they often lack even the most basic knowledge of the faith. In addition, they are often more profoundly shaped by a peculiar strand of self-secularized Catholicism that emerged from the upheaval of the ’60s and ’70s than by Catholicism rooted in apostolic tradition. What’s missing among the teachers and those in the administration is a deep, interior formation in genuine Catholic culture, tradition and identity. And immersion in Catholic culture, tradition and identity are absolutely essential at a Catholic school.

What impact has this ubiquitous self-secularization had on students at these soi-disant Catholic schools? For starters, their moral and spiritual vision is dimmed, redirected and lowered to meet worldly and not supernatural ends. “Education” is understood by students and teachers as a scramble to the top of the ladder of worldly success, where grades and achievement occupy a higher position than knowledge of the faith and the salvation of their souls. The priority of the soul’s formation in truth, virtue and wisdom is lost if the faith in its integrity doesn’t inform every aspect of a school’s culture, but instead reminds on the fringes.

What should an authentic Catholic school look like? The truth is that a genuine Catholic school would strike many today as “extreme” or “radical.” Such an evaluation would only underscore the point that many Catholics’ perception of what it means to be Catholic have largely been defined by the standards of contemporary secularism, where religion is relativized and sequestered exclusively to the private sphere. Living a truly integrated Catholic life is a radical proposition today. The idea of Catholic schools that assist parents in the formation of integrated young souls is undoubtedly “extreme” by the standards of 2021 woke Progressivism. But this is just what we need, and that’s just what’s been missing for far too-long at Catholic schools in the United States. But let’s go back to the earlier question:

What should a Catholic school look like? 

First of all, at an authentic Catholic school, primary attention is given to the liturgical life of the Church and the Sacraments. Daily Mass (or at least weekly) with frequent opportunities for confession, adoration and other traditional devotional practices is the norm. Students should understand liturgy, with its order, structure, beauty, reverence and solemnity as the ordering principle of their lives, as well as the source of their Catholic identity. Liturgy is not dumbed-down or banalized to accommodate what school administrators think will better connect with teenagers.

The catechesis is rigorous and foundational. Students at a serious Catholic school know the faith, with its rich vocabulary and timeless teachings and are intellectually equipped to defend it. Church teaching, including on the moral life, the sacraments and doctrine, is not relativized or watered down, but is held up as the standard by which students should measure their entire lives. Students are formed by the works of great thinkers, from Augustine to Aquinas, to Dante and Newman.

Pope Pius XII observed, “The faith of young people must be a praying faith. Youth must learn how to pray.” Prayer in the classrooms is regular and structured at a Catholic school. The traditional prayers of the Church are memorized. Every class begins with prayer. The Angelus is recited as a community at noon. Assembly and dismissal begin and end with prayer. Students frequent the chapel daily to pray before the Blessed Sacrament. Instruction in the art of prayer is given pride of place, reminding students of their continual obligation before God to worship, praise, ask forgiveness and thank Him.

The theological and cardinal virtues should stand as another pillar of a genuine Catholic school. Pope Gregory XVI noted, “Nothing can be of greater benefit to both Christian and civil society than a timely formation of youth in piety and virtue.” At a Catholic school worthy of its name, “prudence” and “temperance” are familiar words, not “privilege” and “tolerance.” Students learn about prudence in literature, catechism, physical education and throughout the day. They learn how to cultivate the life of virtue through reading, discussion and prayer. The lives of the saints are familiar stories at a Catholic school and the best source for seeing virtue play out in real life scenarios. There is no better way to instruct students in the life of virtue that by looking to the saints of the Church.

The serious Catholic school is noteworthy for its order. Order is beautiful, whether in the interior life of the soul or in the way students line up for recess and arrange their lockers and desks. Order takes a lot of work, formation and cooperation with God’s grace. The life of virtue, forming habits of excellence in thought and action, is a life of interior order and harmony. A virtuous student is ordered, integrated and therefore beautiful. It’s hard to get more counter-cultural than this in 2021.

At a true Catholic school, the faith is integrated into every nook and cranny. Speaking directly on this theme, Pope Leo XIII observed, “Religion must not be taught to youth only during certain hours, but the entire system of education must be permeated with the sense of Christian piety.” When this happens, all the classes and the entire culture of the school are infused with the beauty and richness of the faith. There is no compartmentalization of the faith to one “religion class,” as often happens today. As Elizabeth Sullivan notes in Renewing Catholic Schools: How to Regain a Catholic Vision in a Secular Age: “When Catholic schools emulate public schools and then tack on religion class, they create a dangerous dualism that undermines the unity of faith and reason.” In addition to the dualism, a cultural void emerges at the school, allowing harmful outside influences to step in as the primary influence on the students. On the need for integration, Pope Benedict XVI states, “The idea of an integrated education, based on the unity of knowledge grounded in truth, must be regained. It serves to counteract the tendency, so evident in contemporary society, toward a fragmentation of knowledge.”

Beauty should be another hallmark of a Catholic school. The classrooms should be beautiful. They shouldn’t be laden with garish decorations and cartoonish posters. Carefully selected works of art, plants, etc. adorn the room in a tasteful way. Students are familiar with the great artists of Western civilization and their timeless works of art. Michelangelo, Bramante, Raphael, Bernini, Caravaggio, Fra Angelico are familiar names at a serious Catholic school. Students are culturally literate, civilized and well-mannered.

Finally, authentic Catholic schools are faithful to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. The teachers and administrators are prayerful and completely enthusiastic about and dedicated to passing on the richness of the Church’s spiritual and intellectual patrimony to the students. Teachers and administrators recognize the cultural malaise that has impacted society and, by extension, many Catholic schools over the past several decades. They see the terrible consequences that have resulted from these schools’ capitulation to John Dewey’s secularizing philosophy of education, as well as to the “dictatorship of relativism,” religious indifferentism and alienating individualism. Genuine Catholic schools know what they believe and fight to defend it against outside threats.

Many of these ingredients are conspicuously missing from Catholic schools today, and have been for decades. The consequences of these glaring omissions have been disastrous. More often than not, Catholic schools today play follow-the-leader with secular academia and culture. Catholic elements that may be present here and there are usually framed by politically correct assumptions and narratives. Often, various forms of feminism, multiculturalism, gender and critical race theories find their way into the curriculum and student life. Homilies and petitions at school Masses are opportunities to prattle on about the latest leftist social justice grievance, etc.

To be fair, some schools are trying to bring back a modicum of serious Catholic identity, but a modest patch job here or there will not compensate for the gapping holes. The old saying about rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic comes to mind. Small crucifixes above the doors or one mediocre “religion class” a day won’t cut it when the noxious and overpowering fumes of relativism and secularism circulate in the halls and permeate every corner. Often, a principal nobly attempting to restore a degree of Catholic identity at a school runs into embedded, resentful faculty and staff who resist and subvert him every step of the way. Division of this sort is utterly ruinous.

Fortunately, a renaissance is taking place with the rise of classical Catholic education. Status quo Catholic schools, with their superficial religious gloss, predictable common core curriculum and sterile Progressive pedagogy, are seeing their enrollment plummet. Classical schools on the other hand, guided by the nourishing wisdom of Western Civilization, are experiencing a steady surge in enrollment. The above-mentioned ingredients are present at classical Catholic schools. Many Catholic families realize there is something wrong with the status quo and are looking for an alternative with the courage to buck the trend of the worn-out mainstream.

One of the strengths of classical Catholic education is found in the cohesion among the faculty and administration. Those involved in classical schools are extremely intentional about the school’s mission and how to achieve it. Often, the faculty at classical schools is much younger than that of mainstream Catholic schools. The teachers and administration weren’t formed in and by the iconoclastic upheavals and ideologies of the ’60s and ’70s which so heavily impacted society and the Church. As a result, they have a much more sober and realistic assessment of that generation’s harmful impact on Western culture in general, including in the arena of education. (Read Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster by Helen Andrews.) In an interesting twist, this significantly younger generation of classical school teachers is far more acquainted with the older, classical heritage of Greece, Rome and Jerusalem, as well as the medieval heritage of scholasticism, than the older ’70s generation of mainstream Catholic school teachers who prefer Glory and Praise and Fr. James Martin over Gregorian Chant and Saint Thomas Aquinas.

Faculty and administration at classical schools are united in promoting a coherent identity for the school and students, recognizing that their objective stands in stark contrast to the mainstream. As a result, administrators carefully select faculty who understand this as well. They aren’t straining, on the one hand, to affirm some semblance of Catholic identity while, on the other, placate the expectations of a culture that rejects the fundamental principles upon which that Catholic identity is built. Administrators and teachers at classical Catholic schools begin with a rejection of those modern expectations and assumptions. When everyone is on the same page, it makes fostering and building upon a unified culture and identity much easier. Teachers at classical schools have a passion for education in the classical sense of the word, as formation of the student’s soul in truth, beauty and goodness.

Two classical schools in the Milwaukee area are Aquinas Academy (K4-8) and Chesterton Academy (high school).

Featured image: ad orientem liturgy at Aquinas Academy.