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  • Kimberly Begg

The ‘Unworthy Instruments’ who are Saving Catholic Education

Updated: Oct 12

Schools across the country are reclaiming the Church’s educational tradition at a moment of renewed interest in Catholic education among American Catholics. Leaders of the movement credit more than 40 years of efforts by Catholic parents, homeschool groups, independent schools—and the Holy Spirit. Today, more than a quarter of Catholic dioceses are restoring a Catholic mission, curriculum, and pedagogy at their schools.

If you’ve ever marveled at God’s handiwork in the world, in preparation for a moment you did not foresee, then you know how the leaders of the Catholic education renewal movement feel right now.


In 2022, education is a hot button issue. Every week, school administrators, parents, and government officials make news as they battle for control of the behemoth that is today’s taxpayer-funded education system.


Headlines focus on critical race theory and transgender ideology. But at the heart of the power struggles are fundamental questions about the nature and purpose of education: Who do children belong to? What are the goals of our schools? What values and habits should educators instill in students to help them develop into healthy adults?

2020 is when many Americans began asking these questions. This is when our world stood still—and families found themselves reestablishing a home culture at the exact same time that they were discovering what their children were learning at school. Distance learning had given parents unfiltered access to their children’s classrooms—and they were alarmed.


In the months that followed, families confronted the rapid spread of dangerous ideologies against their objections. Citing gross violations of public trust, they fled government schools at historic rates and governors began taking corrective action affirming the rights of parents as the primary educators of their children.[1] Since then, three states[2] have established or expanded Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) to empower parents to decide how to spend their children’s education dollars—to pay for government schools, private schools, or homeschool resources; Catholic Education Partners and other allies are working with leaders in other states to launch ESAs during this opportune time.


The change in the educational landscape caused many Catholic parents—who believe that their children belong neither to them, nor the state, but to God—to think more creatively about their duty to provide a Catholic education for their children. This is where the magnificent work of the Holy Spirit comes into focus. Because as Catholic families researched education options, they tapped into networks of families and friends who had been involved in different Catholic education communities. Some had homeschooled; some had been involved in independent or parochial schools. Those who were most excited about who their children were becoming—who said their children were growing in faith, virtue, and wisdom—were those who had discovered the best “innovation” in Catholic education today: the Church’s educational tradition in the liberal arts and sciences, which is distinct from the secular model.


St. Jerome Academy, a PK-8 parochial school in Hyattsville, Maryland, is perhaps the best-known school of hundreds that are thriving since reclaiming the Church’s educational tradition. For decades, SJA had followed the path of many other parochial schools: except for a religion class, weekly Mass, and crucifixes in the classrooms, the education it offered was essentially the same as the (tuition free) government school down the street. As a result, enrollment had decreased every year for a decade and the Archdiocese of Washington was considering shutting down the school.


In 2010, Mary Pat Donoghue—who was not only SJA’s principal, but also a graduate—began the renewal process that saved her school. She and her pastor at St. Jerome Parish, Fr. James M. Stack, did something extraordinary at the outset of the process: they asked for help to understand why their school was failing. Fr. Stack began by reaching out to the local homeschool community. He asked these parents why they chose homeschooling over their parish school and was told that their children had access to richer content at home. Rather than become defensive, he and Donoghue listened and sought their advice. In humility, they invited a team of philosophers, theologians, and home educators from the parish and from nearby at The Catholic University of America to create a plan to swap out their school’s secular-inspired culture and curriculum for the Church’s long standing, but largely abandoned, intellectual and sacramental traditions.


This had never been done at a parochial school before, but proof of concept could be found in a growing network of Catholic homeschool families, homeschool groups, and independent schools across the country. For decades, parents and educators had been cultivating the moral and sacramental imagination of children by rejecting progressive trends in favor of rich content and classic disciplines, all rooted in Truth: works of classic literature, history unfiltered by secular biases, sacred art and music, Latin, theology, philosophy, science, and mathematics. Early “innovators” included:


Donoghue recalls that the most important moment in SJA’s renewal was the curriculum committee’s release of The Educational Plan for St. Jerome Academy, a 120-page document that made it clear that Christ—not secular standards and benchmarks—would be the undisputed organizing principle for the school. The Educational Plan provided the outline for a K-8 curriculum, recommended book lists, and pedagogy guidelines: it laid out what would be taught, and how it would be taught, such that all aspects of the culture and curriculum would be ordered to the reality of human nature and child development and would reflect the cohesiveness and beauty of a Catholic worldview.


Michael Hanby, an associate professor of religion and philosophy of science at the John Paul II Institute at the Catholic University of America, was a principal author of the Educational Plan. He recognized that an important aspect of the project was creating a blueprint for educators to provide a “true” education—one that is ordered to human flourishing—for students, such that parents would understand it and demand it for their children. He explains:


True education liberates the soul to live the highest, most human, and therefore most divine kind of life: a life which transcends the animal necessities we share with the beasts; a life free from enslavement to lies, to fashion, to our appetites, or to our vices, a life free for the contemplation of God, a life lived joyfully, courageously, even sacrificially in the light of His goodness and truth.


As an educator tasked with leading other educators in her school’s renewal, Donoghue knew she could not teach what she did not know. She contacted ICLE, the only group that was offering specialized training for Catholic educators drawing on the Church’s educational tradition.


In 2010, she attended Seeley’s ICLE Academic Retreat for Teachers, held at Holy Cross College in South Bend, Indiana. That event played an integral role in connecting key leaders of the renewal. It was at this workshop that Donoghue met Seeley and Elisabeth Sullivan, who is now ICLE’s executive director, but was then “just” a parent, teacher, and communications director for St. John Bosco Schools in East Rochester, New York, seeking to serve her small independent school. Sullivan joined ICLE shortly after the workshop to help develop and promote the vision. She recalls that, as the ICLE team continued to hear from Catholic educators about what they were doing in their local communities, it became clear that “something was bubbling up.” “We knew we needed to come together to coalesce our efforts into a movement.”


In 2013, ICLE held its first conference in upstate New York. The purpose of the event was to inspire, equip, and connect Catholic educators to spread the fruits of the renewal nationwide. Seventy-three teachers and other leaders in Catholic education attended, including: Sullivan, Donoghue, Kevin Roberts (now executive director of the Heritage Foundation), Emmett McGroarty (now director of research and planning at the Institute for Human Ecology at Catholic University of America), Mark Salisbury (director of education and evangelization for the Diocese of Marquette, Michigan, who was the first diocesan leader to bring all the schools in a diocese into the renewal), Mo Woltering (now headmaster of Holy Family Academy in Manassas, Virginia), David Stiennon, Esq. (then-chairman of the board of St. Ambrose Academy in Madison, Wisconsin), Luke Masik (headmaster of The Lyceum in South Euclid, Ohio), Leslie Mitros (head of school of Aquinas Academy in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), Theresa Jace (supporter of Aquinas Academy near Milwaukee and later founder of the Chesterton Academy of Milwaukee), Michael Verlander (an educator at Holy Spirit Preparatory Schools in Atlanta, Georgia), and Rosemary Vander Weele (principal of Our Lady of Lourdes in Denver, Colorado), among many others.


The conference revealed a key insight into the renewal: the journey of a Catholic educator is a journey of faith. Teaching is relational as Christ the Teacher is relational. God works through friendship, inspiring His people to help each other fulfill a unique purpose in the world.


Sullivan calls the renewal “apostolic.” “It’s people finding each other, helping one another on our journey and helping us to see God in all things,” she says. “Those of us doing this work feel humbled by it.” She explains:


We see ourselves as unworthy instruments in this beautiful work. We feel that we’ve been caught up in the movement of the Spirit. It’s a privilege and it’s awe-inspiring.


In recent years, school leaders have allowed Christ to work through them to renew school communities at: Saint Agnes School, a PK-12 archdiocesan parish school in St. Paul, Minnesota (2009); Our Lady of Lourdes, a PK-8 parochial school in Denver, Colorado (2011); Sacred Heart Academy, a PK-12 parochial school in Grand Rapids, Michigan (2012); St. Agatha Academy, a PK-8 parochial school in Winchester, Kentucky (2013); Holy Child Catholic School, a PK-8 parochial school in Tijeras, New Mexico (2016); St. Mary’s Catholic School, a PK-12 parochial school in Taylor, Texas (2016); St. Mary’s Catholic High School, a diocesan high school in Phoenix, Arizona (2016); Holy Innocents School, a PK-8 parochial school in Long Beach, California (2018); St. Regis Academy, a PK-8 diocesan school in Kansas City, Missouri (2018); and St. James Catholic School, a PK-6 diocesan school in Crete, Nebraska (2021), among others. Today, at least 200 other schools are on this path. In fact, entire dioceses are moving in this direction.


In addition, many parents who have seen the powerful impact of Catholic liberal arts education on their children in elementary school have sought to continue that formation by launching independent high schools with a similar philosophy. Some have formed innovative, independent 9-12 schools, including St. Jerome Institute (2019) in Washington, D.C. and The Summit Academy in Fredericksburg, Virginia (2019); others have tapped into the Chesterton Schools Network (2013) for practical and curricular advice to form schools including Martin Saints Classical High School in Oreland, Pennsylvania (2017) .


Catholic philanthropists have provided critical support along the way. Mike Ortner, founder of the Ortner Family Foundation, explains why the renewal of Catholic education has attracted the support of Catholic investors in recent years.


Long-term, the renewal of Catholic education offers a real opportunity for change. It’s where we see the greatest potential to strengthen the Church and improve all aspects of society. It’s also where we can make a tangible impact in the lives of children, right now. The long-term impact will come about over time. The short-term impact is immediate and life-changing; it’s incredibly satisfying to be a part of it.


In 2021, several philanthropists stepped forward to fund a truly transformational initiative: a new teacher credential program designed specifically for Catholic educators, that would offer a robust alternative to state licensure rooted in a secular worldview. ICLE developed and piloted the program—called the Catholic Educator Formation and Credential (CEFC) program—in the Archdiocese of Denver with the support of Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila and Superintendent of Catholic Schools Elias J. Moo.


Moo’s enthusiasm for the credential program reflects his optimism in the future of the renewal:


[O]ur teachers now have access to a truly formative experience that honors their dignity as human people, preparing them in the best of our Catholic tradition made anew for the reality of our times, and giving them sound pedagogical tools rooted in Catholic principles. CEFC has truly been a blessing for the Archdiocese of Denver!


In 2022—the year that National Catholic school enrollment increased for the first time in two decades (by 3.8 %), and 47% of Catholics with children in public school said they had considered moving their children to a private or parochial school in the past year—ICLE expanded the credential program, making it available to teachers nationwide.


“It’s remarkable that American Catholics are rediscovering Catholic education at a time of extraordinary growth, momentum, and leadership in the renewal movement,” Van Hecke says.


He offers key data points:


  • ICLE’s member school network has grown from four (in 2014) to 175 (in 2022), consisting mostly of parochial schools.

  • More than 25% of the nation’s Catholic diocesan superintendents (45 leaders representing 45 dioceses) now comprise a group affiliated with ICLE; they are helping each other renew their parochial schools by prioritizing authentic Catholic mission, curriculum, and pedagogy over the imitation of secular trends (e.g., endless dives into data, experimentation not based on truths of human nature and childhood development, and marketing ploys).

  • In July 2022, ICLE’s 10th National Conference was its largest ever, bringing together hundreds of participants from 68 dioceses and 128 schools, including 300+ participants who gathered in person, and hundreds more with live stream access, for a 3-day event at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.


“It’s been incredible to witness the conversion of heart among educators and parents who are discovering the Church’s educational tradition in friendship with their brothers and sisters in Christ,” Van Hecke says.


“We marvel at the work of the Holy Spirit in this renewal,” he says, citing the importance of key friendships amongst God’s most faithful servants.


He mentions Donoghue. After saving SJA (which continues to thrive under Danny Flynn’s leadership as principal), she joined ICLE to help dioceses and schools reclaim the Church’s educational tradition for their communities. In 2018, she became the executive director of the Secretariat of Catholic Education for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. At the USCCB, she works closely with Bishop Thomas A. Daly (Diocese of Spokane and chairman of the committee on education for the USCCB), Bishop James D. Conley (Diocese of Lincoln) and Archbishop Aquila, and other good friends of ICLE who are committed to freeing Catholic educators from secular influences to help them set the hearts of children on fire for Christ.


Seeley considers it a great blessing to work alongside Catholic educators who are discovering a renewed passion for their work. “We have been in awe to see the Holy Spirit transform whole communities in the light of the Church's traditions of education,” he says.


Van Hecke agrees. “To see whole school communities transformed in the light of Truth—to see educators rediscover meaning in their work and families draw closer to Christ and each other—and then to look back to see how this has all come about, and where God was leading us all over the past decades is deeply humbling,” he concludes. “I am in awe of God’s goodness.”

[1] Governor Glenn Youngkin of Virginia overruled school policies requiring teachers to keep secrets from parents. Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida signed bills requiring curriculum transparency (mandating that school boards open meetings about the selection of instructional materials to the public) and defending parental rights (prohibiting school instruction that is not age appropriate and requiring schools to notify parents if there is a change in a child’s mental, emotional or physical health or well-being). [2] The three states that recently created or expanded ESAs are West Virginia (2021), Arizona (2022), and Tennessee (2022). Eight states have ESAa. Arizona’s ESA is the most expansive in the country.


Kimberly Begg is editor of Catholic School Playbook and director of programs and general counsel of the Ortner Family Foundation.

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