By Robert Spencer
from Sursum Corda, Spring 1996
What can parents do about un-Catholic Catholic Schools? For a hardy few, the answer has been: start your own. Now, some of these schools are banding together.
“You mean we shouldn’t teach contraception?” I heard that question a few years ago in a faculty meeting of a Catholic high school in New York. The questioner was hastily reassured: of course we should.
That question –and that answer- say all that needs to be said about the current state of the Catholic parochial school system. The trouble began at least as far back as 1967 in Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin, where the International Federation of Catholic Universities, under the presidency of Theodore Hesburgh of Notre Dame, drew up a statement on the nature of Catholic education. Its key declaration:
To perform its teaching and research functions effectively the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.
In other words: Catholic education has nothing to do with Catholic teaching.
Although the “Land O’Lakes Statement” referred to Catholic universities, its influence spread throughout the Catholic educational establishment. After all, if the Jesuit college was defying the Pope, how could the Jesuit prep school enjoin obedience? Since then, the revolutionaries for whom the statement served as a manifesto have gained control of those bureaucracies which in turn determine policy and curricula for diocesan schools, chiefly the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA).
These bureaucrats and their innumerable “experts” are often as bullying and contemptuous of parental rights as their counterparts in public schools –from whom, often as not, they take their lead, including such morally corrosive ideas as sex education. Parents who have tried to fight such things usually find themselves treated as “troublemakers” by Catholic school officials, who in most cases are backed to the hilt by their bishops. The Vatican’s recent statement reminding bishops and educators that sex education is the province of parents, not schools, is a sign of how widespread the problem has become.
In response, some Catholic parents and educators have headed for the hills: many now school their children at home; some others have started their own private Catholic schools (my own quick count shows at least thirty such schools nationwide; doubtless there are more ). [as of January, 2003 there are 164 known private Catholic and independent schools in the U.S. –Editor] Last year, parents and educators from some of these new schools banded together under an umbrella organization called National Association of Private Catholic and Independent Schools (NAPCIS).
Papal Battle Cry
NAPCIS casts itself as David to the NCEA’s Goliath. It began with four schools: St. Maria Goretti Academy in Sacramento, California, Thomas Aquinas School in Tahoe City, California, Manresa Academy in Reno, Nevada and Kolbe Academy in Nana, California. Their battle cry: Pope John Paul dictum that “the parents have been appointed by God Himself as the first and principle educators of their children… their right is completely inalienable” (Familiaris Consortio 40).
Already other schools, from California to Massachusetts, have applied for NAPCIS membership, making it truly a national organization, and inquiries come in every day from people wanting help in starting small schools of their own.
Yet like Roger Maris’s sixty-first* home run, NAPCIS must carry an asterisk. All the organization’s literature carries a footnote explaining that “the name Catholic appears in the name of the organization only to reflect the fact that some member schools have received the consent of the competent ecclesiastical authority in their diocese to bear the title Catholic in accordance with c.803.3.
“NAPCIS claims no authority to determine if a member schools may bear this title, nor does membership in NAPCIS permit a school to call itself Catholic. It is the sole responsibility of the member school to obtain permission from competent ecclesiastical authority in its diocese.” This is necessary because only a Catholic bishop, of course, has the authority to confer –or revoke- the designation “Catholic.” Once again, here is a bracing display of solid Catholicism from those little independent schools.
NAPCIS Executive Director Eileen Cubanski, a teacher with thirty years’ experience in Catholic education, remembers her own moment of truth. One day in 1988 she entered a diocesan program for the continuing education of teachers. The class was shown a film by Fr. Richard McBrien lecturing. (Fr. McBrien, chairman of Notre Dame’s theology department, is the most prominent dissident among American theologians.) When Cubanski mentioned the film to a priest friend, Fr. Paul Schloeder, he lent her copies of McBrien’s Catholicism (a kind of anti-catechism), and also Fr. John Hardon’s solidly orthodox Catholic Catechism. “Read what each of these has to say about Jesus and Mary.” Schloeder told her.
“That night I did my homework,” Cubanski relates, “and I was amazed! This man is supposed to be telling us about the Faith, and he’s saying we don’t have to believe in the Assumption! And that Jesus didn’t know He was God!”
“I realized that I had to be vigilant,” Cubanski continues. She read these words of Pope John Paul II and took them to heart: “If ideologies opposed to the Christian Faith are taught in the schools, the family must join with other families, if possible through family associations, and with all its strength and wisdom help the young not to depart from the Faith” (Familiaris Consortio 40).
Five years later, in 1993, Cubanski and a group of Catholic parents, with the help and blessing of Fr. Schloeder, founded St. Maria Goretti Academy in Loomis, California, a little town just north of Sacramento.
There is a good deal that is “old Church” at St. Maria Goretti Academy, evocative of the days when children learned the virtues in school and test scores attested that hard academic work was being done as well. Children at this little school are introduced to all the beauty and power of the Catholic Faith. They are given the means to see that the Catholic Church is worthy of their love and defense. The classes are classically oriented, emphasizing the eternal verities in a context that enables students to meet the challenges of this age.
John Brennan, the administrator and teacher of the Academy’s high school program, tells the story of a ninth grader who entered the school, according to his mother, as an agnostic. After only a few weeks at St. Maria Goretti, this young man experienced a conversion of sorts, or at least a rekindling of his early childhood faith. “Now he fights for the Faith,” says Brennan. For instance, the young man vigorously defended the validity of Baptism as a sacrament when his brother, who attends a different school, declared that the rite was merely symbolic of one’s entry into the Christian community.
Like other schools of its kind, St. Maria Goretti Academy is severely strapped for funds: the faculty has gone for long periods on half salary, or worse. Clearly they find more lasting rewards.
Dedicated Young Teachers
Certainly NAPCIS schools and others like them offer an educational experience not to be had elsewhere. At a rented parish building Tahoe City, California, a tireless young graduate of the Franciscan University of Steubenville named Julie Clark shepherds a small but challenging group: eight students ranging in grades from first to seventh, omitting only the second.
This is Thomas Aquinas School, where the walls are lined with pictures of St. Francis of Assisi, Our Lady of Guadalupe and Pope John Paul II. One striking wall-hanging depicts the Holy Father moments after being shot in 1981, cradled in the arms of his Blessed Mother.
Thomas Aquinas School instills into its students the same sense of the spiritual overarching all matters material. At one point during her multiform teaching day, Julie Clark reads stories to the youngsters, who draw pictures as they listen. But instead of the usual renderings of fire trucks and rocket, these children reward Clark with representations of St. Joan of Arc and the Nativity.
Recently Clark, whose job constantly calls upon her to exercise all her inventive powers, turned a case of dishonesty over missing homework into a classroom discussion (naming no names, of course!) of how sin damages or destroys the Christian relationship with God. These children will earn responsibility, one crucial ingredient needed for the Church’s restoration.
Across the continent another Steubenville graduate, Paul Metilly, performs feats similar to Clark’s by teaching religion, history, mathematics, English and Latin to the six seven graders who make up NAPCIS applicant Mariamante Academy, a new school in the rural western town of Gill.
Mariamante, like St. Maria Goretti and Thomas Aquinas, is a labor of love on the part of parents and teachers. One parent teaches art for no charge. Two other teachers accept stipends rather than salaries. No one, of course, becomes a teacher for the money; but this group unhesitatingly accepts outstanding sacrifices for the children’s sake.
The education offered at Mariamante, as at its sister schools, aims at preparing students not only for college and good jobs, but for excellence of soul and mind. Louise Desilets, director of Mariamante, proudly refers to Matilly as a “master teacher.” Metilly and his colleagues benefit from the counsel of a devout and experienced Jesuit in Boston.
“God Wills It!”
Desilets cites two others as providing the model and inspiration for Marimante’s curriculum and overall academic design: John Schmidt of the classically-oriented Trivium School in Lancaster, Massachusetts, and Francis Crotty.
A retired highway patrol officer who has drawn his educational philosophy straight from the pages of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Crotty is the administrator and one of the founders of Kolbe Academy in Napa, California, founded in 1980 and named for the Martyr of Auschwitz, St. Maximilian Kolbe.
Kolbe Academy’s fifteen years of operation make it a veteran in this field, and over the years Crotty, although he would laugh at anyone who called him an educational expert, has helped numerous other schools across the country get started. He calls the schools “a fulfillment of the whole idea of Vatican II: the involvement of the laity in bringing the principles of the Faith into action in the secular world.”
Signs put up on fun on the walls of the Kolbe high school classroom bear witness also to the kind and quality of the education offered there and at other NAPCIS schools. From classical Rome: Delenda Carthago est (Cato the Elder’s refrain about Rome’s enemy: “Carthage must be destroyed”) and Arma virumque cano (“I sing of arms and the man,” the opening if Virgil’s Aeneid). From medieval Europe comes the Crusaders’ cry, Deus vult (“God wills it!”) and the serene countenance of Prester John, the legendary central Asian Christian king. At the entrance to the classroom is a guard dog: Cerberus, the three-headed dog of myth.
Kolbe’s graduates are a small but distinct band of sixteen young people who are all practicing the Catholic Faith. Achieving a one-hundred percent graduation rate among those who went on the college (which is all but a few of them), the Kolbe graduates have shone at the University of Dallas, the University of San Francisco, St. Thomas Aquinas College, the Franciscan University of Steubenville and elsewhere. One, Brian Muth, as a National Merit Finalist who received a full scholarship to the University of Dallas; two others, Bob (now Frater Mark) Charlesworth and Chris Crotty, are pursuing the religious life: Charlesworth with the Norbertines in southern California and Crotty with the Fathers of Mercy in Kentucky.
Kolbe Academy has been the model for numerous small schools, but when I asked Francis Crotty what had been Kolbe’s model, he directed me to the Jesuits. Not Theodore Hesburgh and Robert Drinan, but St. Ignatius of Loyola and Claudio Aquaviva, the renowned fifth, and many say the best, superior general of the order.
The foundations of the magnificent edifice of Jesuit education are found in three sixteenth-century documents: theRatio atque Institutio Studiorum, out into its final form by Aquaviva in 1591, and the Constitutions and Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Francis Crotty has distilled these sources into several practical handbooks for implementing Ignatian education in the home as well as in a school.
The Ratio Studiorum, as it is commonly known, provides a guide for curricular content. Accordingly Ignatian education as implemented at Kolbe, St. Maria Goretti and other schools places a firm emphasis on the classical languages. This is not to educate people to be ready to meet the challenges of the sixteenth century, or to enable a graduate to sprinkle his conversation with Latin phrases and Greek literary allusions. Rather, it is to exercise the powers of memory and to instill the precision of thought that is characteristic of those languages, along with the thoroughness and attention to detail that is necessary to master them.
Moreover, it awakens the student’s awareness to the fact that Western thought today stands within a tradition, and that modern public policy could benefit from a little more knowledge of the Greek and Roman civilizations that fathered current categories of thought. Kolbe students begin Latin or both languages as early as fourth grade, when a child’s memory is quick and powerful. Many others of the small schools follow suit.
Reading and, in the higher grades, literature courses emphasize the classics, from the venerable and still-unsurpassed McGuffey Readers in the primary grades to middle school acquaintance with the likes of Jack London, Fenimore Cooper and Mark Twain. Kolbe’s high school curriculum uses all primary sources, based on a four-year cycle of a year each in Greece, Rome, the Middle Ages and the modern era. Students read Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, T.S. Elliot, and Solzhenitsyn. St. Ignatius and his Jesuits emphasized the common-sense notion that students learn by imitation. Exposing them to excellence –in all fields, encompassing greatness of soul, of mind, of insight, of inventiveness,- will in turn inspire the drive for excellence within them.
This excellence should shine forth in any endeavor, but the main goal of Ignatian education is to inculcate spiritual excellence: to make saints. The Baltimore Catechism and the excellent Faith and Life Series of Catholics United for the Faith provide the source material, along with the new Catechism of the Catholic Church and writings of the Saints themselves in the higher grades.
But in religion above all the learning comes from imitation. Religious instruction in these schools is not just another academic period, but permeates the entire curriculum. There is a strong emphasis of bringing the children to be good, and to be good for the love of God. The Jesuit constitutions, which come largely from the pen of St. Ignatius himself, were written for the formation of Jesuits but have a good deal that can be applied to the formation of lay teachers as well, particularly in their capacity as spiritual models for youth. Crotty’s Ignatian teacher’s manual draws heavily fro this source. Cubanski maintains that “one who is involved with small independent Catholic schools is called to be there.” It’s not a job; it’s a vocation.
The core of this educational vocation is found in St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. Crotty identifies the guiding principle of all his educational endeavors as being found in St. Ignatius’ stated “Purpose of the Exercises”: “The purpose of these Exercises is to help the exercitant to conquer himself, and to regulate his life so that he will not be influenced in his decision by any inordinate attachment.” Education is to make saints, above all. If these saints are scholars of athletes, so much the better, as they will bring the light of Christ into their chosen fields.
Crotty sees the model of teacher/student relations in the “Presupposition of the Exercises”: “…begin with the presupposition that every good Christian ought to be more willing to give a good interpretation to the statement of another that to condemn it as false. If he cannot give a good interpretation to this statement, he should ask the other how he understands it, and if he is in error, he should correct his with charity. If that is not sufficient, he should seek every suitable means of correcting his understanding so that he may be saved from error.” This presupposition assumes that correcting a student’s error will ultimately be better for his “self-esteem” than will leaving him in it!
Mariamante’s latest newsletter contains a capsule summation of Ignatian education: “What is special about Ignatian education? Character formation – personal care – Catholic experience – humanities – education of the whole person.”
Perils of Independence
Before NAPCIS could ever get off the ground, one of the founding schools, Reno’s Manresa, shut down, perhaps forever. The financial strain was too great. None of the schools are ever far from financial ruin: Margaret Crotty tells of knocking on doors one hard winter, literally begging for enough money to cover their teachers’ next paychecks. The determination level must be high for schools to survive: as Crotty once wrote, “It came to this! If we had to, we would open the school in one of our garages and have the mothers teach.”
NAPCIS won’t raise funds for schools, but will become the storehouse of fund-raising wisdom gathered by member schools in their travails.
Money isn’t the only problem, or even the worst. More pressing, because of its influence on enrollments and donations, is one of gravitas. Eileen Cubanski sums it up: “As an administrator of a small school, and getting a small school started, one of the first questions that parents would ask would be, ‘Are you accredited?’ They would want reassurance that somehow we weren’t on the fringe. They were looking for some kind of credential: who are we, and who do we think we are, starting a small school?”
Thus, developing a sound but independent accrediting standard is a chief goal of NAPCIS. At a November meeting, some of the proposals for curriculum standards were: “Where national and state standards reflect sound educational principles, the institution’s course offerings, content, and methods of instruction meet or surpass these standards…Curriculum content is informed by the Catholic tradition of excellence in education and by the tested educational methods of previous generations.”
Teacher certification is another NAPCIS goal. St. Maria Goretti’s Brennan has drown up a series of draft requirements for NAPCIS certification, including “an oath of allegiance to the Catholic Church” and a “college B.A. or equivalent teaching experience,” which will allow home schooling experience to be counted for teachers in NAPCIS schools.
Elizabeth Kantor is a former high school teacher with a doctorate in English who plans to seek NAPCIS certification when she returns to teaching (at present she is caring for her infant son). She taught for three years at a high school in Fairfax, Virginia, where, despite her Ph.D., she was required to have twelve hours of education course credits for the school to maintain its accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, an established accrediting body. “The people at my school did the best they could for me,” Kantor relates, “by trying to get SACS to count my six hours of undergraduate psychology courses.”
But she still had to take two education courses. One was on the history of mathematics, where, Kantor says, “I was surprised to learn that apparently the new trend in education circles is that no one should have to learn multiplication tables or memorize sums.” The second course, taught at George Mason University in Fairfax and subsidized with federal tax dollars, was supposed to help teachers deal with substance abuse in students. Instead, instructors tried to impress upon the teachers attending that all value judgments were relative, and that processed sugar was a drug on a par with crack cocaine.
“I thought it was sad,” Kantor continues, “that in order for me to communicate my Faith to students in a Catholic school, I was required to take Mickey Mouse classes with premises opposed to what I was trying to communicate.” Kantor remembers thinking at the time, “Why can’t we have our own Catholic accrediting organization that wouldn’t require or even accept classes such as these for accreditation?” Hence her interest is NAPICS.
NAPCIS will not seek federal recognition of its accreditation process, since the federal government has no Constitutional mandate to exercise control over education. “Our accreditation standards will stand on their own intrinsic worth,” says Cubanski.
One Small Step
The main hope of all those involved in NAPCIS is that the number of faithful Catholic schools offering high-quality education will grow, whether they are affiliated with NAPCIS or not. Cubanski and NAPCIS stand poised to help anyone who requests assistance in getting started, as well as in continuing to exist. Crotty’s humble words at the close of his pamphlet “On Starting a Small School: A Feasibility Packet” sums up the supporting role NAPCIS wants to play:
One of the best pieces of advice we received came from a Dominican teaching sister of many years’ experience. Her admonition: ‘Do not become sanctimonious! Never forget there are many wonderful teachers out there in the public and Catholic school systems who are doing a fine job, and they deserve our support and friendship.’ Once you decide to open a small school, you will be joining others in the teaching profession. Support your fellow teachers and administrators.
As Crotty puts it, “Inevitably, given the strong personalities involved in all these endeavors, there is conflict – conflict of personalities and disagreements over small matters.” Yet it is increasingly clear that Our Lord’s prayer “that they may be one” (St. John 17:21) is not just a pious hope, but an indispensable condition for success. NAPCIS follows St. Augustine’s counsel: “In essentials, unity; in inessentials, diversity; in all things, charity.” NAPCIS is one small step in the direction of bringing this unity, diversity and charity out of the realm of empty words and into action.