The Catholic Schools in America


‘FOR an individual man to lead a good life,’ observes Saint Thomas Aquinas, ‘two things are required. The first and most important is to act in a virtuous manner, for virtue is that by which one lives well; the second, which is secondary and as it were instrumental, is a sufficiency of those bodily goods whose use is necessary for an act of virtue.’

It is a fact of universal experience that only those who lead a good life are truly happy. Contentment, joy, and peace are born, not of any kind of living, but only of living well. A man may do violence to his conscience, but in doing so he does not rest easy. No degree of external success can compensate for internal failure. To gain the whole world is to lose, if the price is personal integrity.

Human beings are intended to be happy. Their ultimate destiny is union with God for all eternity, to be filled with all His fullness. The beginnings of that bliss they enjoy here on earth in the measure that they conform themselves in thought and action to the Will of God. Consequently they need to create for themselves during this life those conditions which will safeguard them in the practice of virtue and make it possible for them to live well.

Now this has always been the basic educational postulate of the Catholic Church. The school is one of the very important agencies that the Church makes use of in carrying out the mandate of her Divine Founder: ‘Go forth and teach all nations.’ In every age and in every place, regardless of circumstances, under whatever political, social, or economic conditions, the Church labors to assist human beings to attain the end for which they were created — namely, union with God. This end they accomplish by living in and through and by Christ. Through those who believe in Him, Christ exercises His life-giving power, not only within the four walls of the church, but in the factory, in the office, on the golf course, through the wicket in the bank or over the counter in the department store.

Schooling that is intended to prepare for this kind of living cannot be based on a compromise between what is Christ and what is indifferent to Christ. To attempt to make children and youth conformable to the image of the Saviour by means of some occasional religious instruction and then teach them the arts and the sciences in conformity with the spirit of the world is to court failure. It suggests to the impressionable mind of the child that religion does not really matter in the same way that other things matter. He does not see it entering into the warp and woof of life, and unless a man’s religion does enter into the warp and woof of life it has little more than emotional or pietistic value.

In the Catholic school, religion is not regarded as just one branch in the curriculum. It is not confined to mere religious instruction. It is the foundation, the heart and soul of all other disciplines. Nor does it limit or circumscribe these disciplines in any way; on the contrary, it reveals their true values and affords the learner a rational basis for integrating them and through them achieving a dynamic and inclusive philosophy of life.


In pursuance of this ideal of education, the Catholic people of the United States have developed and are maintaining schools of their own apart from the system which government provides out of the public taxes. In these schools their aim is to provide their children with those experiences — religious, social, æsthetic, and scientific — which will enable them to develop the ideas, the attitudes, and the habits which will equip them to live as Christ would have them live and as they must live if Christ is to live in and through them in American democratic society.

The 1938 census of Catholic schools and colleges, just completed by the Department of Education of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, reveals that there are at the present time in the United States 7916 Catholic elementary schools, enrolling 2,086,071 pupils; 1984 Catholic secondary schools, taking care of 302,154 students; 188 colleges and universities, with an enrollment of 143,678; 42 institutions engaged in teacher preparation; and 175 ecclesiastical seminaries, in which candidates for the priesthood are being fitted for their future mission.

This whole endeavor is supported entirely by voluntary contribution and represents, I believe, the most substantial and dramatic act of faith in education that is being made by any section of the American populace. For it must be borne in mind that, in addition to educating their own children in schools that accord with their ideals of life and the dictates of their conscience, Catholics are taxed, as are all other citizens, for the support of the public schools.

The basic unit in the Catholic school system is the parish school. It traces its origin back to the mission schools established by the Franciscan Friars in the Southwest at the beginning of the sixteenth century and to the schools that the Jesuits founded in Maryland when that colony was settled. Throughout the history of the Catholic Church in the United States, Church and school have developed side by side.

The parish is an excellent unit for local school administration, because it is a real community. It organizes the families that compose it into a truly vital union. In it centre the most important and sacred affairs of life, and the bond that holds it together is fashioned of elements that grow out of the deepest of all human loyalties.

The family is, of course, the fundamental unit in parish life. It is in the home that the child receives his earliest and most important education in Christian living. Since, however, the family is not entirely self-sufficient, the Church supplements its educational endeavors by means of the school. There all of the children of the parish come together and, under the supervision of the pastor, — who, next to their parents, is responsible in the sight of God for their spiritual welfare, — are guided and directed toward the assumption of life’s responsibilities.

There is an atmosphere of affection about a parish school that I, at least, have never found in other educational institutions. Teachers, children, pastor, all seem to belong to one another. Even when the school is large and system must needs intrude its formalities, something that is ‘homey’ continues to be pervasive. After all, the parish is a neighborhood, and neighborliness is characteristic of all its activities. For initiating children into the art of living happily together and making them aware of their duties and responsibilities to others, for giving them immediate and first-hand experience of the satisfactions that are born of loving one’s neighbor as oneself, the parish school has unrivaled potentialities.

Not all of the Catholic children in the United States are in parish schools. As a matter of fact, despite all the efforts and sacrifices that have been made, the Catholic people have only succeeded to date in providing facilities for approximately one half of their boys and girls. The ideal, ‘Every Catholic child in a Catholic school,’ has been more and more zealously cherished as the years have gone on, but it has encountered the harsh reality of lack of means. By and large, the Catholic population of the United States is made up of people whose income is not large, and they have not always been able to find ways and means of meeting the demands of an expanding population.

This is particularly true on the secondary level. Catholic high schools have multiplied phenomenally in the last thirty years, but they have not been able to accommodate more than a fraction of Catholic youth of high-school age. Conditions vary in different parts of the country. There are some dioceses in which as many as 90 per cent of those who should be in a Catholic high school are in a Catholic high school. Elsewhere the situation is not so satisfactory. Because of lack of funds, it has been impossible for the Catholic schools to introduce many of the vocational courses which are so necessary today, when secondary education is no longer the exclusive prerogative of those who are going on for higher learning. While many Catholic high schools, particularly those under parish or diocesan auspices, are striving to take care of the practical needs of those students who desire to fit themselves as soon as possible for a job of some sort, most of our Catholic high schools are of the academic or college-preparatory type.

For the most part, the teachers in Catholic schools are members of religious communities. Were it not for this fact, the Church could never have accomplished all that she has in the field of education. For religious teachers require nothing in return for their labors except the wherewithal to purchase the mere necessities of life. Having taken a vow of poverty, they devote themselves to the cause of education without any desire for personal recompense.

This is another inspiring evidence of faith in education. The teaching orders in the United States, whether they be priests or brothers or nuns, are made up of men and women who could have followed any other calling had they so desired, and found as much success and comfort and happiness as does any other average American. But they preferred to sacrifice the things that people usually cherish and to devote all of their energies and talents to the work of Christian education. Their lives are characterized by a seriousness of purpose, a readiness to make personal sacrifices, a spirit of hard work and, withal, a blitheness of spirit, that fit them wonderfully for the task of directing and guiding children and young people.

The professional preparation of the religious teacher is being taken care of more and more adequately. It is still the rule for the various religious communities to prepare their own members for the work of teaching, although the last twenty years have seen the development here and there throughout the country of teachers’ colleges under the direction of the diocese. Such colleges usually have state approval, and their graduates receive state certificates. The larger Catholic universities have all developed facilities for teacher preparation and each year are enrolling large numbers of religious in their graduate schools.


The attitude of the American public toward the Catholic school has been in the main friendly. There are always those, of course, who are suspicious of any activity of the Catholic Church and who see in the existence of a separate system of schools some sort of menace to American institutions. Here and there, as was the case in Oregon in 1922, attempts have been made to pass legislation hostile to the Catholic school. However, the decision of the Supreme Court in that case, which emphasized that parents — and not the government — have the primary right to determine the kind of education their children should receive, served to give a salutary rebuke to those who failed to see the menace to fundamental liberty that is involved in the concept of a state monopoly of education. The child belongs to his parents before he belongs to the state. It is the function of the state to assist the home to perform adequately its educational function, and not to supplant it.

Oftentimes it has been hinted, if not openly asserted, that the education which children receive in Catholic schools is inferior to that which is provided in tax-supported institutions. Such a criticism is entirely gratuitous; I know of no evidence anywhere to support it. Here and there throughout the country Catholic schools are overcrowded. The same can be said for public schools. By and large, perhaps, the program in the Catholic schools is much more conservative than that in the public schools, but it might well be argued that this fact is to their credit. Some of us who are interested in Catholic education might feel that possibly more could be done than we are doing to develop the creative capacities of our children, that Catholics might become more articulate than they have been and more inclined to express in literature and art and music the ideals and the aspirations that they cherish. Most of us would like to be in a position to do much more for the handicapped child, for whom a thoroughly religious education would be a wonderful boon. All that is standing in our way is lack of adequate funds.

The canon law that requires Catholic parents to send their children to Catholic schools also safeguards the interests of the children, for it insists that Catholic schools shall be ‘no whit inferior to public schools’ — scholis publicis haud inferiores. In order to ensure that the work in Catholic schools shall be kept up to standard, provisions are made for supervision on the part of the diocese. In the early days the bishop would appoint a school board, made up of pastors, whose responsibility it was to visit the schools, examine the children, and also to grant certificates, following an examination, to prospective teachers. Later, the board was supplanted by a priest, representing the bishop and known as diocesan superintendent of schools. His duty it is to make use of all the accepted means — such as a uniform course of study, approved textbooks, examinations, and child accounting — to bring about a progressive improvement of teaching in the schools in the diocese. He is assisted by supervisors, appointed by the various religious communities, whose function is the same as that of public school supervisors. In every community the relations between the Catholic school officials and the public school officials seem to be cordial, and wherever any general civic interest is involved there is the best coöperation.

Some are concerned lest the segregation of Catholic children in Catholic schools may bring about an unfortunate cleavage in our population. As one who never attended a public school, to me this fear seems very silly. Catholic boys and girls mingle in neighborhood life with the boys and girls who go to public schools. They grow up with them, meet them socially, and later on coöperate with them in business and civic life. The only cleavage that exists is that born of a difference in religious belief; only the heads of totalitarian states fear this cleavage.


In the first part of the last century it was quite common for schools conducted by religious bodies to share in the public educational funds. Difficulties of one kind or another arose and resulted in controversy, and the result was an easy solution, which solved nothing, by determining that only schools neutral with regard to religion would be supported by the public tax. This arrangement has lasted until the present day and has been accepted by Catholics under protest. Here and there, attempts have been made at a compromise which would give the state control of all phases of education except religion in the Catholic school in return for financial support. Even today there are a number of what we usually call Catholic public schools, mainly in the Middle West. The arrangement is not entirely satisfactory from a Catholic point of view.

The Catholic argument is that, since the state passes laws compelling all children to go to school, it is the duty of the state to provide schools that accord with the dictates of the parents’ conscience. The public school maintains neutrality with regard to religion and creed. This in itself amounts to government taking a theological position, because it implies that religion and the creed one professes have no real or vital connection with everyday life and that religion does not matter in the same degree as does arithmetic, geography, or natural science. The philosophy of secular education is not merely negatively but positively religious. Consequently, it stands in contradiction to Catholic principles of education.

Lately, this issue has become increasingly acute by reason of the fact that the public school program includes so many elements that are only indirectly educational. The child who attends the public school is transported by buses supported by the public, receives textbooks and study materials free of charge, is given medical and dental attention, provided with a lunch, and cared for in many other ways. All of these services belong to him because he is a child and not because he is a pupil in the public school. Children whose parents, for reasons of conscience, have placed them in a Catholic school are deprived of these advantages. No other phase of American government makes any comparable discrimination.

A recent development in the public high school is the provision that is being made for vocational guidance, training, and placement. What this will amount to in the long run is that Catholic youth will be handicapped in its search for employment as a penalty for attending a Catholic secondary school.

The President’s Advisory Committee recommended that that part of any future federal aid for education that would be allocated for services such as transportation, reading materials, and medical care should be made available to all children and not only to those in tax-supported institutions. Several states are transporting children to Catholic schools, and two states, Louisiana and New Mexico, are providing free textbooks to all the children of the state, regardless of the school they are attending.

Some profess to see in all of this an entering wedge which will eventually bring about a demand on the part of Catholics for state aid for their schools. Whether or not it is an entering wedge, I think it is fair to say that the issue of state aid for non-public schools will become very much alive in the immediate future. The scholarships which are granted through the National Youth Administration would seem to indicate that it is possible to find a way of helping children to get the kind of education they want without bringing about a union of Church and State. That bogy, of course, will continue to be raised, but I am confident, that intelligence and good will and common sense will eventually serve to lay it. As Dean Holmes suggested in his article in the January Atlantic, ‘The Nation Challenges the Schools,’ a restudy of the whole history of the question should prove very profitable. Other nations as zealous for democracy and religious freedom as is ours are supporting religious schools out of the public funds. Their experience proves that it can be done, and though the particular method used in Canada, England, or Holland might not fit our circumstances, there is no reason why we should not be able to discover a method that does. It is intolerable that in a democracy those who believe that religion is necessary as a bulwark of character should be treated with less concern than those whose attitude toward religion is indifferent.


Years ago, during the World War, Dr. Charles H. Judd wrote an article for the New Republic which he entitled ‘Education for an Undifferentiated Competence.’ As I remember it, he was glorying in the fact that without any previous military training the young men who were brought into our army were so readily transformed into soldiers. He ascribed this to the fact that the broad general training we were providing in our American schools seemed to prepare young people for any eventuality and to make for a very high degree of adaptability. I wonder if that idea, education for an undifferentiated competence, is not one that we should continue to cherish with all our heart and soul. We are living in a changing world and experiencing great difficulty in seeing even a vague outline of the shape of things that are to be. We are faced with the problem of unemployed youth and are becoming uncomfortably aware that our present program of secondary education has been tried and found wanting. Naturally, in times like these there is bound to be a lot of beating of the air and aimless running about hither and yon in search of a way out.

We educators are great ones to coin phrases, and someone the other day hit on the slogan, ‘ Education for the Unemployed.’ Perhaps that is a very large part of our job. Of course the very best way to educate the unemployed is to employ them, for there is no substitute for the strengthening and stabilizing effect of a job that is worth while and which enables a young person to be selfsupporting. We all hope that the time is near at hand when private industry will be able to take care of youth that wants to work. Meanwhile, and until that time comes, it will be necessary for government to step into the breach. It is doing so now through the National Youth Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. The place of the school in connection with these programs is something that still remains to be determined.

Its function will no doubt be to provide general education whose aim, to quote Dr. Judd’s phrase, will be preparation for an undifferentiated competence. Sometimes we call it education for citizenship. Its purpose must be to develop fundamental character that will be proof against vicissitudes of all kinds, even unemployment, and which will be strong enough to cling fast to fundamental American ideals, whatever winds may blow. Someone has said we shall have better times when we have better men. Whatever else free government strives to accomplish by means of education, its first aim must be to inculcate sound and solid virtue, because virtue is the only guarantee of happiness. Because they love their country, its institutions and its ideals, and because they are resolved to safeguard it to the utmost of their ability, the Catholic citizens of the United States out of their meagre resources are maintaining schools where children and youth are taught that they must love God above all things, with all their heart and soul and mind and strength, and that the proof of their love of God is their love of their fellow man.

(In the May ATLANTICDean Henry Holmes will present ‘A New Hope for Education’)