Teaching with Faith, Rekindling the Fire: A Review of Recent Literature on Catholic Education

We are privileged to have Dr. Ryan Topping offer his reflections on the problem of Catholic Education today, with some helpful book suggestions on the topic. His article will appear in the third edition of the Review, due out in about a month, our special education issue.

Dr. Topping is Fellow of Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, NH.  He formerly held the John XXIII Chair of Catholic Studies at St. Thomas University in Canada and has published a number of works on education including St. Augustine, 2nd ed. (Bloomsbury Library of Educational Thought, 2014).  Forthcoming is his Renewing the Mind: A Reader in the Philosophy of Catholic Education (Catholic University of America Press), as well as a shorter work for teachers, Teaching the Faith: First Principles of Catholic Education. He can be reached at ryan-topping.com

– ed.


Teaching with Faith, Rekindling the Fire:

A Review of Recent Literature on Catholic Education

Ryan N.S. Topping, Catholic Review of Books, Fall 2014


“Not only do we need believing teachers and pious practices; we need also to re-enchant the curriculum and, most of all, the ethos within our institutions.”

 Catholic Education in North America peaked in 1965, spiraled into a steep decline for the next three decades, and has in recent years entered a phase of renewal.  A few statistics fill in this picture.  In 1900 10 million American Catholics supported some 3500 parochial schools.  In three generations an immigrant population built the largest, most extensive, best funded parochial system of education in the world such that, by 1965 Catholic elementary and secondary schools enrolled 5.5 million students.  That was the peak.  By about 1985 the population dropped by half; the trend continues. For instance, between 2000 and 2013 our schools lost 651, 298 students, or 25% of the total enrollment.  More kids are homeschooled than Catholic-schooled.  Today, if you can believe it, fewer bodies sit in Catholic desks than in 1930.  So much for the stats.  What about their ethos?  Near the end of his pontificate John Paul II observed the following before his brother American Bishops:

The greatest challenge to Catholic education in the United States today, and the greatest contribution that authentically Catholic education can make to American culture, is to restore to that culture the conviction that human beings can grasp the truth of things, and, in grasping that truth, can know their duties to God, to themselves and their neighbors.

In other words, problem number one is not funding, is not staffing, is not pedagogical know-how.  The problem is this: somewhere in the 1970s teachers lost their minds (or at least forgot its good).  John Paul’s words, of course, apply to Canada as much as to the US, and perhaps more.  While the blight of cultural relativism continues to spoil much precious fruit in our kindergartens, I would like to suggest that we’ve entered a slightly new cultural situation.

Given my work, I have the privilege to speak on occasion to Catholic teachers and others interested in the renewal of our parochial institutions.  There’s bad news; but there’s also good news.  While 133 Catholic schools closed last year, 43 new ones opened.  These upstarts, like the recently opened Chesterton Academy in Minneapolis, are overwhelmingly of the faithfully Catholic type. How to explain this concurrent collapse and revival?

Simply, market conditions have shifted.  Cultural Catholicism – of the sort that pays lip-service to orthodoxy – still has power in North America.  But it has fewer children.  When your local St. Bernard’s no longer teaches the rosary, no longer stages processions, no longer offers Latin why pay the extra $7,000 when your suburban public or charter school provides much of the same benefits for a fraction of the cost?

The triumph of the previous generation of enthusiastically Catholic parents was to identify the root problem: the acid of moral relativism is destroying our institutions.  Now that the philosophy of Alice and Wonderland has been named, the task is to bring Alice back home.  Naming the ills of intellectual skepticism is one thing.  Rekindling the moral and intellectual habits of a Catholic-school culture is another.  This, to my mind, is the task that awaits the present generation of parents and educators.

It is also the subject of several recent publications on Catholic education to which I would like to draw attention.  Let’s start with the bishops.  Nearly anyone thinking seriously about the renewal of Catholic education begins, rightly, with Benedict XVI’s 2008 speech to Educators at the Catholic University of America.   In that talk Benedict offered his synthesis of recent magisterial teaching on how education serves the mission of the Church.  Providing inspiration to anyone devoted to the renewal of Catholic colleges and schools, he memorably declared, “First and foremost every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth.” (For more along this line see the collection of Benedict’s speeches A Reason Open to God: On Universities, Education and Culture, 2013.)  In other words, directing, conditioning, enlivening the activities of a Catholic school is the ambition to draw its members into a personal relationship with Christ.  If the school fails here – that is, to evangelize its youth, the school fails everywhere.  This is true even if you have a really, really good football team.

Another churchly speech worth attending to is one given a few years previously by Vancouver’s Archbishop Michael Miller, CSB. His The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools wasoriginally delivered as a lecture while Secretary for the Vatican’s Congregation for Education.  In this 2005 talk Miller offers a concise statement of Catholic teaching on learning.  He unapologetically observes: “Ensuring their Catholic identity is the Church’s greatest educational challenge.”  Miller names five marks of a genuinely Catholic school.  He proposes that Catholic schools ought to undergo an accreditation process which offers “assurance of their Catholic identity.”  Administrators looking for concrete means of beefing up their school’s identity would do well to look here for ideas from this veteran educator, and bishop.

Then there are the philosophical books.  For background, one would do well to look again at St. John Paul II’s encyclical On Faith and Reason, C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, Peter Redpath’s Recovering a Catholic Philosophy of Elementary Education  (helpful here is his series of short questions and answers), and especially at Christopher Dawson’s recently re-published Crisis of Education in the West.  In my course in the philosophy of Catholic education Dawson is always required reading.

Dawson’s popularity is deservedly achieving something of a rebirth. In the middle part of the 20th century he was widely regarded as the finest modern Catholic historian.  Like John Senior (see his Restoration of Christian Culture), Dawson saw that any return to the Great Books of our civilization would fail without a return to the habits of civility.  The modern mind is homeless because it knows not from whence it sprung.  What is needed is a retrieval of our cultural memory.  After a guided tour through the rise and decline of Western education, Dawson provocatively proposes “a reorientation of higher studies with the concept of Christian culture as the integrating factor – a new humanist studies oriented towards Christian culture rather than classical culture in the old style or the contemporary Western secular culture in the new style”.  His ideas can work.  Don Briel’s wildly successful Catholic Studies Program (at St. Thomas University, in Minneapolis), for instance, is based largely on Dawson’s ideal.

Of course the truth of the Catholic faith would be ignored if it were not also beautiful.  This leads me to that other great contemporary thrust of Catholic writing on education: its mystical and spiritual elements.

Where to begin? On the question of Catholic literature many parents have benefited from Michael D. O’Brien’s A Landscape with Dragons: The Battle for Your Child’s Mind (1998), and more recently – and for those who like  The Screwtape Letters – Anthony Esolen’s 10 Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (2010).  Also of note are Stratford Caldecott’s two books:  Beauty for Truth’s Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education (2009) and Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education (2012).  Drawing heavily upon Benedict XVI, these works show how a re-enchanted curriculum is one which trains students to grasp the meaning and order immanent within the cosmos, an order fulfilled, finally, only within the action of the liturgy.

Renewing the Catholic culture of our schools seems the right place to begin.  We need believing teachers. We need better funding.  But most of all we need to learn how to re-enchant the ethos within our institutions, to join together sanctity and scholarship.  When we lost confidence in the creed, it was only a matter of time before our schools ceased to serve as living, breathing centers of Catholic culture.  The task ahead is to learn to win it back.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *