The Catholic University of America

Oct. 5, 2011

Educators Seek to Bolster Catholic Identity of Schools


Most Rev. David M. O’Connell, bishop of Trenton, and Most Rev. Richard J. Malone, bishop of Portland, at the conference on the Catholic identity of schools.

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Until the 1960s, nuns in habits and the Baltimore Catechism made Catholic schools easy to identify. Two generations and a cultural sea change later, a group of the nation’s diocesan school administrators and teachers — mostly lay people — met this week in Washington, D.C., looking for ways to keep Catholic schools Catholic.

The conference, “The Catholic Identity of Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools,” took place Oct. 2 to 4 at The Catholic University of America. St. John’s University of New York co-hosted the event. The invited guests included about 100 educators, school and university administrators, and researchers.

Their aim was to determine what Catholic school personnel understand about the Catholic character of schools, what constitutes evidence of Catholic identity, and how Catholic institutions of higher education can help bolster it in Catholic elementary and secondary schools.

The speakers and attendees acknowledged that Catholic schools should be understood first as Catholic, but in some cases look more like just another option in the pool of academically rigorous private schools.

School administrators and teachers must refocus in an “intentional” way on the fundamental mission of Catholic education, Most Rev. David M. O’Connell, bishop of Trenton and former Catholic University president, said in his Oct. 3 keynote address at the conference.

“The idea of Catholic identity is very simple. A Catholic school derives its identity from Jesus Christ, from the Gospels, from the Church and its teaching — all of its teachings in integrity, from the history and tradition of the Church,” he said.

“Our Catholic identity is who and what we are,” he continued, noting it is not an “add-on. It’s a mission in our religion classes, but it’s also the mission in our math classes, computer classes, and everything else that we do.” Catholic education, he explained, “brings good news to every human situation.”

It is critical, he added, that those individuals leading Catholic schools “must believe in Catholic identity.”

John Convey
CUA’s St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Professor of Education


During the conference, John Convey presented a national survey he and Leonard DeFiore conducted on the issue of Catholic identity in diocesan Catholic schools. At Catholic University, Convey is the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Professor of Education and DeFiore is research associate professor and Brother Patrick Ellis Professor of Education.

The survey responses indicated there was little agreement among teachers and administrators to an open-ended question about what constitutes the Catholic identity of a Catholic elementary or secondary school. Out of 3,389 responses to open-ended questions, just 261 used the terms “Eucharist,” “Mass,” or “liturgy;” 131 used the term “Christian;” and only 50 said “Catholic Church teachings.”

Just over half — 61 percent — of respondents said it was “essential” to integrate Catholic teachings throughout the curriculum, and 39 percent said it was essential that most teachers in a Catholic school be Catholic.

The results startled some participants. In a round-table discussion, Michael Boyle of Loyola University said he was “surprised” that only 75 respondents used the term “Christ-centered.” He said he “hoped it would have been higher.”

Sister Mary Grace Walsh of the Diocese of Bridgeport wondered aloud whether in the drive to compete in academics with other schools, some Catholic schools “say they’re Catholic” but see religion only as another subject. “It’s a growing concern of mine,” she said.

“I think the participants in the conference were lamenting the lack of a common vocabulary to define the nature of Catholic identity,” Convey noted afterward.

  Leonard DeFiore
CUA’s Brother Patrick Ellis Professor of Education


DeFiore addressed some practices that he suggested lead to a dampening of schools’ Catholic identity.

Unlike their predecessors — religious sisters, brothers, and priests — most lay teachers in Catholic schools now are educated in public universities. Moreover, he said, most schools of education in Catholic universities prepare students to teach in public, not Catholic, schools.

Catholic educational institutions, including universities, exist in a growing secularism that is “indifferent or sometimes hostile to religious practices and ideas,” Catholic University President John Garvey explained in his remarks.

He cautioned educators against “the temptation that we all face to fit in the crowd we hang out with” and to not yield to what’s “fashionable” with secular academic associations that believe “religion has no place in biology class.” In fact, Catholicism adds to the academic life “to make it better,” he said.

Speaking as a parent and “consumer” of elementary and secondary Catholic education, Garvey said he has seen an improvement in Catholic education in the United States over the last 20 years. He urged teachers to do more.

Referring to Catholic University’s work to bolster Catholic identity on its campus, Garvey told the audience, “Like us, your teachers will have to rededicate themselves to the proposition that all of us need to teach our students about Jesus all the time.”

Speakers and participants suggested a variety of ways to assist teachers in that and to strengthen the Catholic identity of their schools. They included making a school’s mission clearer in writing, delivering curriculum support to help teachers integrate the faith into secular subjects, and providing catechesis for teachers.

“The bishops have to be very, very attentive to the ongoing faith formation of every single faculty and staff member in the school,” said Most Rev. Richard J. Malone, bishop of Portland, Maine. 



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