Monday Musings: When Does A Catholic School Cease To Be Catholic?

In past columns for what is now Monday Musings (when they were, in fact, still Friday Filings) I have penned some thoughts about the nature of Catholic schools and their Catholic ‘identity’ or, in my preferred terminology, their ‘Catholicity’. If you haven’t read these previous columns, you might like to visit them here and here, though there is no real need to do so in order to keep reading this preset particular contribution. Part of my argument then, and now, is that the Catholic ‘identity’ or ‘Catholicity’ of a particular school is impossible to quantify and is, essentially, a binary situation: either a school is recognisably Catholic or it is not, and you can immediately get a feel for which is which simply by being present in a particular school setting.

So while it is impossible to provide an exhaustive list of criteria for recognising a school (or other organisation for that matter) as authentically Catholic, it is possible to know that a supposedly Catholic school has lost the Catholic part of its name. How, then, does one judge these things? What are some of the characteristics that might lead one to suspect that this Catholic school isn’t living up to the name?

Some of the characteristics are going to be immediately obvious. A lack of prayer and liturgy, an absence of overt religious symbols, and a curriculum where religion and religious education are given short shrift might validly raise a question as to the authenticity of a claim to be a ‘Catholic’ school.  And yet the simple presence of these characteristics does not immediately mean that a ‘Catholic’ school is, well, Catholic. Their presence could simply be window dressing if they are not authentically embraced and lived. And that authenticity will be immediately obvious to the seasoned observer, regardless of what any official documentation might say to the contrary.

If these characteristics might provide a clue, what else might be recognised as missing from an inauthentic ‘Catholic’ school?

Far less easily observed and recognised are those things that, if absent, are truly indicative that a ‘Catholic’ school might not be all that it claims to be. First among these, I would like to suggest, is the absence of any recognition that the school, purporting to be Catholic, is connected to something beyond itself, i.e. the Church. Does the supposedly Catholic school realise it has an intrinsic relationship to a local parish, or diocese, or even a religious congregation that might have established the school? Does it keep and honour the liturgical calendar of the Church year by year? Is it connected to the civic life of the community in which it exists? Does it create an atmosphere that is not dependant on race, creed or gender? If not, can a ‘Catholic’ school really be considered to be authentically Catholic?

In addition, true Catholicity is determined by the very operation of the school itself. Do the teaching faculty and other members of staff see the school as a place of employment instead of a place where they are engaged in the very mission of the Church? Do the students know that in this school the staff aren’t there just to collect a pay packet but are there because of a commitment to the welfare of the students? Does the school’s management recognise the responsibility they have as ministers of the Church engaged in the teaching mission of a Church that existed before them and will exist after they’re gone?

And more than these, does the nominally Catholic school promote and live according to the social teaching of the Church? Does it promote equity in terms of access to education? Does it respect human beings because of the fundamental identity that rests in their being created in the image and likeness of God?

If not, then serious questions about the Catholicity of the supposedly Catholic school must be asked – and answers sought.

It is not enough to put a cross on the front wall, embrace the name of a saint, and call yourself Catholic. To be authentically Catholic, a Catholic school – and any organisation that wants to use that adjective – must be authentically Catholic. And that requires more than just words, more than just having the right policies and procedures. It even requires more than having a Vision and Mission Statement. To be authentically Catholic, a school must live and breathe, and work in keeping with what being Catholic authentically means.

So when a nominally ‘Catholic’ school starts to lose these characteristics, to start to claim to be more than what it is, something remedial needs to be done. Reclaiming a sense of Catholicity within an organisation that is in danger of losing it takes work, it takes commitment and, above all, it requires an understanding of what is missing and in danger of being lost. There are always people available to who can assist this process, who can help a ‘Catholic’ school (or other organisation) to recover a true or former understanding of that word. They just have to be sought out from the obvious places.

Yet the longer such a task is left undone, the greater the danger of failure. When a ‘Catholic’ school stops feeling like it is one, when it folds in on itself and loses focus on Jesus, the Christian faith, and the mission of the Church, the time to respond is well and truly come. The work will be hard and there will be many obstacles to confront and overcome, yet the reward of embracing the opportunity is not easy to quantify.

It is never too late to reclaim a true Catholicity within a supposedly Catholic school or other organisation…until it is.