On October 8 and 9, 1859, the Blessed Mother appeared to Adele Brise, a young Belgian woman, in Champion, Wisconsin. Three times, Adele saw a lady dressed in shining white robes with a crown of 12 stars about her head, standing in a grove between two trees. During the third appearance, the lady spoke.
I am the Queen of Heaven who prays for the conversion of sinners, and I wish you to do the same. …But you must do more…Gather the children in this wild country and teach them what they should know for salvation… Teach them their catechism, how to sign themselves with the sign of the Cross, and how to approach the sacraments; that is what I wish you to do. Go and fear nothing, I will help you. —Message of Our Lady of Good Help to Adele Brise, October 9, 1859
As in all Marian apparitions, the nature of the message is significant. Our Lady came to the United States with a directive to educate children in the Faith. Why? Could she have revealed to us the means by which our country will be preserved from its precipitous moral decline? If so, is modern Catholic education robust enough to meet the challenge? Sadly, right now, the answer is no.
The Decline of Catholic Education in the United States
Enrollment in Catholic schools in the United States has undergone a steady downturn over the last 50 years with the decline accelerating within the last 15 years. According to the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA) 2016-2017 report:
The actual decrease in number of Catholic schools since 2006 is 1,064 schools (14.0%). Total Catholic school enrollment declined by 409,384 (17.6%). The most seriously impacted have been elementary schools. Non-Catholic enrollment is 345,327 which is 18.4% of the total enrollment.
As Cardinal Dolan summarized for America magazine:
The reasons for the decline are familiar: the steady drop in vocations to the religious teaching orders … the rising cost of living since the late 1970s that forced nearly every American parent to become a wage-earner and put Catholic education beyond their budget; and the crumbling of an intact neighborhood-based Catholic culture that depended upon the parochial school as its foundation.
These enrollment numbers, Dolan says, should be of grave concern to all Catholics for “the entire parish, the whole diocese and the universal church benefit from Catholic schools in ways that keep communities strong.”
The Five Essential Marks of Catholic Education
What sets Catholic education apart from its secular counterpart is defined in numerous Church documents and encyclicals (e. g. Divini Illius Magistri, Gravissimum Educationis, and the formal statement from the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education). The salient points from these texts were summarized by Archbishop J. Michael Miller, C.S.B. in the book The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Education (2006).
In Chapter 3, the Archbishop identifies the “Five Essential Marks of Catholic Schools”:
Like the marks of the Church proclaimed in the Creed – one, holy, catholic, and apostolic – so, too, does the Holy See identify the principal features of a school as Catholic: a Catholic school should be inspired by a supernatural vision, founded on Christian anthropology, animated by communion and community, imbued with a Catholic worldview throughout its curriculum, and sustained by gospel witness.
Unfortunately, desperate to bolster student enrollment, many Catholic dioceses have compromised their adherence to these principles. Some of the compromise was a result of secular attacks from some government leaders and special interest groups, such as the LGBTQ alliance. Ultimately, though, if authentic Catholic education is doomed, it could be at the hands of Catholic administrators themselves. For it was they who welcomed in the Trojan Horse known as the Common Core State Standards.
Catholic Schools and Common Core
When the Common Core State Standard (CCSS) Initiative was launched in 2009, Catholic schools were not compelled to accept the new mathematics and English Language Arts/Literacy (ELA) standards. However, the rapid implementation of the standards by 42 states and the District of Columbia resulted in over 100 of the 176 Catholic dioceses voluntarily conforming their educational standards to those of the CCSS. Furthermore, the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA) advocated the adoption of the standards and accepted a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation to train teachers on the Common Core.
From the outset, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) urged caution as they recognized the standards were “developed for a public school audience. But the CCSS is of its nature incomplete as it pertains to the Catholic school.”
They pointed out that having educational standards is not new to Catholic schools in this country. However,
Catholic schools must consider standards that support the mission and purpose of the school as a Catholic institution [emphasis added] . Attempts to compartmentalize the religious and the secular in Catholic schools reflect a relativistic perspective by suggesting that faith is merely a private matter and does not have a significant bearing on how reality as a whole should be understood.
Merrily Down the STREAM
Nonetheless, in 2014, Catholic dioceses across the United States began to implement the CCSS using a STREAM curriculum model. This model claims to strengthen the STEM disciplines-Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics-by adding the “R” for Religion and the “A” for the Arts. As explained by Sr. Carol Cimino, Catholic School Superintendent, Diocese of Buffalo,
After the Diocese of Buffalo closed 10 elementary schools in the spring of 2014, we decided that we needed a complete overhaul of how we teach students. Part of the plan… was to implement a STREAM program. We did wrestle with the name of the program: STEM? STEAM? STREAM? We opted for the third because we wanted to ensure that Catholic identity was preserved and integrated into the sciences as their foundation. We also opted for the “A” in STREAM as a way to include the artistic side of the sciences. — Momentum, Winter, 2017
Dr. Margaret A. Dames of the Archdiocese of Newark described the goals of its STREAM initiative:
Throughout [their] work, students are exploring the concepts of social justice and global awareness through connections to the United Nations Sustainable Goals and caring for the whole person (as in digital citizenship) and in climate and conservation actions (Pope Francis’s Encyclical on the Environment). — Momentum, Winter, 2017
Obviously, this is a very different approach to Catholic education. Traditionally, the Catholic faith formed the center from which the academic disciplines radiated outward. The STREAM approach, because of its secular origins, is anchored by the sciences. It does incorporate religion — at least those aspects of religion related to social justice issues — but as one would put the “crust on top of the pie.”
For an increasing number of Catholic educators and, particularly, parents, this new perspective is very disturbing.
“After the Fall”
Leading the charge against Common Core is the Cardinal Newman Society, an advocacy group promoting faithful Catholic education. In 2016, after several years spent evaluating the CCSS, they published a study titled, After the Fall: Catholic Education Beyond Common Core. The issues explored in the study are extensive, from the limitations of the CCSS curriculum itself to the questionable merits of its desired outcomes. The authors particularly decry what they term this “workforce development model” of education.
Under the workforce-development model,…education is valuable primarily to the extent of its practical applicability and utilitarian ends to develop or change personal attributes for the practical benefit of (supposedly) making a student a more valuable worker.
Archbishop Muller makes the same point,
A Catholic school,… cannot be a factory for the learning of various skills and competencies designed to fill the echelons of business and industry. Nor is it for “clients” and “consumers” in a competitive marketplace that values academic achievement. — (Chapter 3)
Ultimately, this utilitarian philosophy of education has a detrimental effect on character development.
The school curriculum, including the Common Core curricular dicta, has increasingly become a utilitarian listing of the knowledge to which students should be exposed and the “skills” they should develop. Where issues of morality arise, they are left unexplored or left to individual unformed conscience (if there is such a thing) or to “popular consensus.”– After the Fall, (25)
Saving “the Wild Country”
Recently, Archbishop Charles Chaput wrote a column, The Truth and Nothing But, about Catholic education:
The goal of all Catholic education is to form young people in a strong Catholic faith, a faith rooted in the truth [emphasis added] about God and humanity…
[It] starts with a simple principle: Facts and achievements are empty, or worse, unless they’re embedded in a pattern of meaning. The deepest hunger of the human heart isn’t for knowledge but for purpose. This is why Jesus’s words in the Gospel of John (8:32) have always had such power: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Truth organizes reality [emphasis added]. It gives meaning and direction to life, and in doing so, it sustains hope.
As society experiences the chaos caused by moral relativism, Our Lady’s description of the United States as a “wild country” holds true 158 years later. Restoring faithful Catholic schools and education, therefore, is critical to the survival of not only the Faith, but of American society itself.
Our Lady of Good Help, pray for us.