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NAPCIS Newsletter Spring 2004

The Administrator's Cross -- Then and Now: Theological Distinctions on Authority, Vocation
and Spiritual Preparation in the Good Old Schools of the Past and Ours Today

Thank You, Jesus --But Why Us?

An acquaintance of mine, Fr. Anon, who is a solemnly professed religious, at certain choice occasions turns his head upright and gazes into the heavens and cries aloud, “Thank you, Jesus!” This ejaculation, which displays a rather unique form of piety in its own way, is really just this fellow’s manner of response when that cross with which we are all familiar presses heavily on his shoulder. You know the one, the cross of having everything fall apart around you and you are the one left to pick up the broken pieces.

It seems that particular cross is a common one in our schools, especially for administrators and boards. How many of these crises have you endured in the last few years: a teacher refuses to sign your faculty handbook acknowledgement form and corrals fellow faculty and parents against the administration; a core group of parents band together to bring about the change they know is best for the school and privately convince a third of the board to back their new school; your wealthiest parent sees the school as an extension of their personality and threatens to remove funding because their child is getting into trouble and considers his discipline unacceptable; a founding board member refuses to accept for their student the enforcement of long-established school policy regarding honesty, dress code, academic standards or Christian conduct?

How many times, on the other hand, have we wondered at the inherent vigor of the centuries-old tradition of Catholic education we few are trying to authentically carry on into the twenty-first century? Indeed, how could it be that the Church and Catholic education in particular, not only survived, but flourished and improved over two millennia with all the onslaughts of the Devil, his minions, and at times the worst offerings human nature could devise? We know we regularly suffer greatly, and having read the accounts from history and Scripture we know that this is nothing unusual, for there is nothing new under the sun. But how is it that today’s attacks are so severe and devastating --often to the point of radical division, fission or closure of our schools?

Certainly, spiritual battle is a constant. The mission of Catholic education has remained the same, too. Today’s variable is the state in life of the educator. Simply stated, today’s Catholic schools are different from those of yore in that now they are governed and staffed by laity. Gone are the days when clergy and religious ran the show. Now it is mom and dad, pro-life colleagues, orthodox survivors of a local mess, young and eager graduates from the better Catholic colleges, or fellow home school veterans who are governing and providing education for the next generation of faithful Roman Catholics.

This single novelty of the last 40 years has had a profound impact on the stability of Catholic schools. The diminution of clergy and religious and the advent of the laity have had a threefold impact on the school. The impact has been manifest through the areas of authority, vocation and spiritual preparation.


Today’s schools often lack both in degree and kind the supernatural authority that is enjoyed by the Church in the persons of Her hierarchy. Yes, the Second Vatican Council called for a participation of the laity in the administration of Catholic endeavors, including educational ones. But this call does not abolish the distinctions of office, role and authority that designate the local ordinary and secular or religious clergy from the layman. The Church is a perfect society, able to attain through its own power the perfection of its members, namely the eternal happiness of beatitude in heaven. Consistent with the order of God’s Providence, this perfect society’s unchangeable constitution places certain men in the place of authority over others, as Our Lord is over all His creation and especially His Church. Did not our Lord commission apostles (read, bishops) to go forth and teach all nations and baptize them? Through their grace-filled efforts, the work of our redemption is able to be completed.

Though in the natural order of things educators enjoy a share in the authority of the parent to educate their children, this is not the same supernatural authority entrusted by God to the leaders of the Church. To the extent we govern and operate our schools outside the auspices of the local ordinary, we lack in the grace of supernatural leadership unique to the members of the Church’s hierarchy. One could argue the theological basis for the ability of bishops to deputize laity to govern schools, but certainly where that commissioning is explicitly lacking (and often necessarily so), no formal authority is actually transferred. Though we may receive myriad graces for our efforts, the ordinary graces of office and authority are not ours.

The only level where supernatural authority is at play in a truly independent school is the share these educators have in the matrimonial authority of the parents given to them by God to form their children unto Christian perfection. As we know all too well, though, any share in the parents’ authority may be revoked by them at a moment’s notice. When independent-minded parents lose confidence in our efforts and programs, they exercise their modern propensity for democracy and vote with their feet. What is more, many lack all traditional sense of authority as is frequently evidenced by parents who fail to backup school policy and action by siding with the child against the institution. This problem has been with us for decades. Now with the most recent scandals in the Church, independent-minded parents are even more on guard and therefore even less inclined to merely accept your decisions.

Concerning the authority of those who are charged with the responsibility to educate, Holy Mother Church has most definitively described the three distinct “societies” that have an obligation to educate. This teaching was communicated for all times in the great encyclical Divini Illius Magistri of Pope Pius XI. First we have the family that holds the office of primary educator. It is, “instituted directly by God for its particular purpose, the generation and formation of offspring; for this reason it has priority of nature and therefore rights over civil society.” (Divini Illius, 12) But the family is described as an imperfect society, “Since it has not in itself all the means for its own complete development.”(Ibid.)

Secondly, we have the civil society, a perfect one, “having in itself all the means for its peculiar end, which is the temporal well-being of the community; and so, in this respect, that is, in view of the common good, it has pre-eminence over the family, which finds its own suitable temporal perfection precisely in civil society.”(Ibid.) But above all we have the perfect society of the Church:

The third society, into which man is born when through Baptism he reaches the divine life of grace, is the Church; a society of the supernatural order and of universal extent; a perfect society, because it has in itself all the means required for its own end, which is the eternal salvation of mankind; hence it is supreme in its own domain.

Consequently, education which is concerned with man as a whole, individually and socially, in the order of nature and in the order of grace, necessarily belongs to all these three societies, in due proportion, corresponding, according to the disposition of Divine Providence, to the co-ordination of their respecting ends. (Ibid., 13-14)

The laity are members of the Church universal, but they are so only through the initiation of the sacraments of baptism and confirmation. Members they are, heads they aren’t. This is because the laity are not members of the clergy who alone hold the three-fold office priest, prophet and king. Hence, the laity are not the ones who offer the divine sacrifice, they are not the teachers commissioned by our Lord to teach all nations and they are not governors who rule in Christ’s place the Church Militant.


Compounding this lack of ecclesiastical authority and resistance on the part of parents to honor that portion of authority we do possess, is the radical difference of vocation and state in life now in play with the laity who run our schools. Catholic doctrine teaches us that God calls some men to higher states in life, that is, to a clerical and/or a religious vocation. Vocation is traditionally defined as a call that comes from outside of the respondent. The single state and even matrimony, though real states in life and the latter being nobler than the earlier, are not ecclesiastical vocations properly speaking. The single life is the absence of a calling to a definite state of life. Matrimony is dependent upon the consent to co-call another to be one’s beloved. Only the clerical and religious states are seen to be vocations by Holy Mother Church, for only these come entirely from outside the one called. Therefore, traditional vocations are seen not so much as God’s call as it is the Church’s call to some souls to share in the higher states of the Christian life.

What does this mean for our schools? The ordinary ecclesiastical graces which accompany the clerical state and the sacrament of Holy Orders, in particular the graces to teach are not present in the lay government and faculty of our schools. The clerical state enjoys a three-fold divine authority to sanctify, to teach and to govern for Holy Orders make its recipients of the sacrament priests, prophets and kings. Indeed the absence of Orders from our halls and offices is really a two-fold disadvantage as the ordinary graces of the Church for governance and teaching are missing in our endeavors. The fundamental purpose of Catholic education is to save souls, but in our schools the fundamental graces to do so in a corporate and educational forum are lacking.

The religious vocation pure and simple does not have the clerical graces of Holy Orders either. Nuns, be they contemplatives or from active teaching orders are neither priests, prophets nor kings. Teachings nuns do have, on the other hand, certain graces that accompany the charism of their order or institute, especially when their group is approved and sanctioned by the Church and have their academic apostolate defined and endorsed by that same authority. The vehicle by which these actual graces transmit and function in the life and work of the religious is through the perpetual vows taken at the consummation of their formation.

Laity who earnestly seek to educate youngsters in union with the mission of the Church for the sake of the salvation of souls and Catholic perfection certainly do receive real graces to assist them in their labors for the Church. Though they function outside of the ordinary channels of vocation, vows, apostolate and grace, nevertheless their work is blessed by Our Lord and Our Lady. That is all the more so in these days of emergency and crisis in the Church. Parents who are charged to see that their children are rightly educated and formed as Catholics have the grave responsibility to see that their children’s needs are met –by extraordinary means if necessary when the ordinary means are lacking, morally unconscionable, or gravely deficient. God Who desires the salvation of all and especially His own will provide for these cases. He does so, though, as He will based upon his particular predeliction for those involved.

Spiritual Formation and Perfection

The last frontier for our consideration is the traditional quality and level of religious formation and spiritual perfection customarily achieved in the clerical and religious personnel. Clerics and religious in particular labor very intensely to attain detachment from sin, submission to God’s and the superior’s will, perfection of virtue and union with our Lady, our Lord and the Blessed Trinity. Certainly not all achieve the same lofty heights of sanctity, but all traditionally were on that path. They were striving for the third level, or “age” of the spiritual life (see R. Garrigou-Lagrange, The Three Conversions of the Spiritual Life, republished by TAN Books for a short but illuminating read). The great examples of this were the Jesuits who only sent the very best into the throws of spiritual battle and the mission fields. These men were truly perfected Catholics. They were walking saints, able through their grace and virtue to withstand the best the devil, his minions and fallen men could assault them with.

Now consider for a moment the situations we administrators and active board members face: the worst problems inevitably come from the most uncomfortable and unfortunate places as sketched out above. We often pride ourselves on the graces we most assuredly are receiving for carrying on this most important work. Right? Let’s be realistic: What religious and spiritual armor do we have to face these onslaughts? We know how imperfect we are --all the more evidently so when we face serious crises. Our dangerous flirting with mortal sin and our bold drinking from the trough of venial sin on a daily basis has done our fortitude and charity no good. Indeed all those lapses have seriously weakened our natural and spiritual armor.

Satan exploits these weaknesses. He often works with our schools like a highly trained karate master by simply exploiting the bad form of his drunken opponent in a street fight, stepping this way, dodging that, getting him to throw a misaimed or poorly timed punch in order to have his own weight upset his balance.

The Hope We Have

These reflections are offered not with an eye to discourage our NAPCIS friends, but instead to point out objective elements of the situation in which we find ourselves. Knowing the situation can help us to better face it and therefore more fully provide for the needs of our families, students and faculty.

Perspective here is everything. We really are asked by our Lord to help rebuild his Church which has been both literally and actually dismantled over the past 40 years. We really are asked to educate the next generation of practicing Catholics in the United States and Canada. We really are asked to suffer greatly in union with the Passion. We really do enjoy the graces and gifts we have received through Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Communion, Penance and Matrimony. We really are granted actual graces to carry on this mission in union with His will and the general intention of the Church (in spite of her worst leaders and members). We really do have a share in the authority of parents to educate their children in intellect and piety. We really do have the authority found in nature that accompanies an institution dedicated to promoting the common good. We really are filling the gaps for countless Catholics whose souls would be lost if we did not engage in the labor and battles we find it is our lot to attend.

With a sober perspective we will do our part to fulfill our Lord and our Lady’s will for the Church in America today. But since we are weak vessels we can easily crack. Three dangers should be avoided.

The first concerns the vesting and exercise of authority in schools. It is most true that schools, and in particular their leaders, have real authority that must be exercised through the administration. Though all Catholic schools share the same fundamental mission, namely, the salvation of souls and the glory of God through the education of the young, each school has its unique approach to that mission’s implementation. A school is well within its rights and responsibilities to define and enforce its approach to that implementation. This is expressed through the school’s stated philosophy of education, its mission statement, and the policies it adopts. Nevertheless, when school boards are too tightly controlled by the hands of only one or a few directors, there is the danger of micromanagement impinging upon the freedom of responsible subsidiary parties to exercise their own judgment in the daily carrying out of the duties with which they are entrusted. On the other hand, an opposite error can occur with the school administration and board that does not control operations closely enough. Here a ruinous democracy of policy and practice can prevent a school from both forming and benevolently asserting its unique identity for the good of souls. In short, schools want to avoid the extremes of controlling personalities or cliques on the one hand, and the anarchy of a radical cooperative parent-run school on the other. The earlier will turn the school into a cult, and the latter will render it a non-entity.

Secondly, excessive attention to the matrimonial obligation of parents to educate can be erroneously absolutized through an extended championing of the laity’s and parents’ rights and autonomy within the Church. When this happens in a school, it propagates today’s common error of a sort of muted-Pelagianism that sees all natural and unconventional/untraditional alternatives to the ordinary means of grace and salvation as both desirable and efficacious for leading men to happiness. On the contrary, true happiness is only found with the Church in and through her supernatural order and sacraments. In addition to failing to serve the supernatural end of our students, this scenario causes the additional scandal of discouragement from priestly and religious vocations. When lay people are good enough for themselves and their neighbors, the Church’s divine hierarchy becomes a cumbersome cleavage, as it quickly became for the Protestants.

Lastly, if one or a core group of leaders in the school too narrowly focuses the policies and activities of the school upon the interest or desires of only one or a handful of families, the common good of the whole may be compromised. In particular, a school should define and state its admissions and discipline standards in accordance with the whole of its educational principles and policies. Admissions and discipline standards must be very carefully implemented if the school is open to enrolling families outside of the founders’ immediate peer-group. If a school is open to the public in this way, then rules must be in force for all students and parents without preferences or regard to persons. In the case where this does not happen, the school simply becomes a clan or a club.

So the next time you feel things falling apart about you, before you look up to heaven and with Fr. Anon holler, “Thank you, Jesus!” remember your situation, your particular gifts and shortcomings, and maybe say instead, “Forgive us, poor sinners that we are, dear Jesus, and grant us thy grace and protection. Thy will be done. AMDG!”

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