Fawcett: Time to take a hard look at how faith is permeated in Catholic schools

01 March 2021

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

Defenders of the Catholic separate school system got good news:  The Supreme Court of Canada has dismissed an appeal against the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal’s overturning of the Theodore ruling.

If that sentence was a bit mystifying, here’s the gist of what that means. In 2017, the Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench held that Section 17 of the Saskatchewan Act, which protects Catholic separate schools (which receive full funding from the government alongside the secular “public” system), was only ever intended to guarantee a Catholic education for Catholic students. The government funding non-Catholic students in Catholic schools therefore went against the purpose of Section 17 and was unconstitutional.

Had this ruling been allowed to stand, all non-Catholic students at Catholic schools in Saskatchewan would have had to pay for their enrolment out of pocket. Obviously, this would likely have led to a mass exodus out of Catholic schools, potentially leaving the separate school system decimated and even in danger of closing altogether. And, since this would have implications for how the constitution is interpreted, this could easily have become a precedent that Alberta and Ontario, which also have separate Catholic schools, would have had to follow. The survival of Catholic separate schools across Canada would be jeopardized.

The ruling was appealed, and, in early 2020, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal unanimously reversed the lower court’s decision, ruling that non-Catholic students were entitled to receive public funds to attend Catholic schools. Predictably, this was challenged, but, now that the Supreme Court has declined to hear the case, it seems that this is the final word. For now, Catholic separate schools are safe.

There has been a lot of relief and excitement over this development, and rightly so. But this should also be a moment of serious reflection. God has saved Catholic separate schools for us to use. What does he want us to do with them?

In some ways, this is exactly what the legal battle dealt with: What is the constitutional purpose of separate schools? Looking at the history of Section 93 of the Constitution Act 1867 and Section 17 of the Alberta and Saskatchewan Acts, the short answer is that they were instituted so that the Catholic faith could be passed on. They were intended to be places where Catholicism permeated every subject and informed the entire atmosphere. For D’Arcy McGee, the father of Section 93, this was primarily so that Catholic parents could give their children a properly Catholic education. After all, McGee reasoned, religious freedom means the freedom to teach your faith to your children.

This was partly how the Queen’s Bench ruling reasoned: Separate schools exist for Catholic students, not non-Catholic ones. That reasoning is logically, theologically, and historically flawed: The ruling itself admitted that non-Catholic students were attending Catholic schools in 1905, when the Saskatchewan Act was passed; non-Catholic parents could have religious reasons for wanting their children to have a Catholic education, and thus their religious freedoms are also at issue; and the fact that separate schools were also conceived as a means of evangelization. It is undoubtedly a good thing that non-Catholics can be students at Catholic schools. However, we should not lose sight of the key fact that Catholic schools were always supposed to be just that: Thoroughly and completely Catholic. The students don’t have to be exclusively Catholic, but the education they receive should be.

And here is where we look the question dead in the eye: Is this happening? To what extent is effective catechesis – and thus effective evangelization – actually happening in our Catholic schools?

This is not a question I can give a simple answer to. Obviously, it will vary from school to school, from administrator to administrator, even from class to class. But I think that, for our own good, we need to be blunt and honest here and admit that many of the faithful, including teachers in the Catholic school system, are often disappointed about what they see being taught (or not taught) in their schools.

It is hard to pin down specifically how effective permeation has been, because, to my knowledge, they are not being “tested” for permeation. This is not because such tests do not exist; Catholic schools in the United States have assessment tools to gauge how well they are teaching the faith. We could adapt these here and find out quickly just how Catholic our schools are. (Perhaps these tools are used in certain places, but, as far as I know, they are not mandatory.)

But, in lieu of this, we mostly just have anecdotes. And many anecdotes indicate that our Catholic schools are, at least sometimes, little more than a public school with crosses on (some of) the walls. According to some testimonies, at certain schools, students and teachers don’t understand Catholic doctrine, or important presentations of it, like the Theology of the Body; classes where history and economics are taught are not thoroughly imbued with Catholic Social Teaching; sacramental preparation is neglected; the spiritual life of the students is undernourished.

Clearly, this is not true everywhere. There are many schools that do a fantastic and honourable job ministering to their students and passing on the wonderful truths that God has revealed to us. But we need to take a hard look at whether these descriptions are true in some schools; if they are accurate, how widespread is this problem? And, if it is widespread, what can be done about it? It needs to be plainly said: If Jesus Christ is not being effectively taught and exalted in our schools, the Theodore victory was in vain.

Suppose there is a lack of Catholic ethos in at least a few of our schools. What is the cause of that? Some suggest it is the presence of non-Catholic students that dilutes their Catholic identity (and even suggest that the original Theodore decision could have been a benefit to Catholic schools). I don’t accept this; Catholic schools have a long history of teaching non-Catholics all over the world while still retaining their Catholic character. If non-Catholic parents want their child to receive a thoroughly Catholic education (and there’s many reasons why they might), this does not seem like an obvious threat to that school’s Catholic permeation.

Others suggest that being government funded is what weakens the Catholic essence of separate schools. If they were entirely parochial, they would have more autonomy and could be truer to their Catholic mission. I don’t really buy this, either (after all, separate school boards can only have Catholics as trustees, so the Church is, in theory, still in complete control over her schools), but I would also point out that Catholic schools in America are experiencing sharp drops in enrolment and a “devastating” number of closures, since their funding model is not exactly equipped to deal with a global pandemic or economic downturn. We would be better served to keep the constitutional model we have and find ways to work with it.

Still others suggest that Catholic schools are possibly trying to “play it safe” by downplaying their Catholic qualities so that they do not alienate the public. If general opinion turns against the Church, the calls to abolish Catholic schools outright could become louder and louder, until finally the constitution is amended and separate schools are put to an end, as happened in Quebec and Newfoundland in the late 1990s.

If any schools are operating out of this kind of worry, they are completely misguided. For one thing, the situation of Quebec and Newfoundland is completely disanalogous to that of, say, Alberta (and, as educator Bonaventure Fagan has documented, the Newfoundland amendment had more to do with a cunning government campaign against separate schools than with popular opinion).

But, more importantly, the most effective technique to defend Catholic schools in the eyes of the public is for Catholic schools to be high quality, effective schools, and the best way to do that is for them to be as Catholic as possible. Across the world, whether in the US, the United Kingdom, Chile, the Netherlands, or New Zealand, Catholic schools perform at or above national averages of academic performance and rates of graduation, even as they usually enroll more students from economically disadvantaged or racially marginalized communities. This is also true in Canada, as has been seen in the Prairies and in Ontario (which definitely suggests that our separate schools are already doing something right). The funding models vary across these schools; the only constant in them is their Catholicism, with its strong intellectual pedigree and its call for compassion and mercy when dealing with the weak.

If Catholic schools want to retain or win the public’s support, they would be well advised to draw on Catholic educational traditions like the Salesian Preventive Method of discipline and the Ignatian Pedagogical Program of instruction. The more Catholic our schools would be, the more effective they would be at ministering to students, especially students from marginalized groups, which would make them more appealing to the public.

But this is where I need to step gingerly, because I am going to make a hard suggestion. It may be that our schools need to look more closely at themselves – that is, at the teachers they are hiring. Why are these teachers choosing to work in Catholic schools? Is it because they have a passion for the faith and want to serve God by seeing Christ in and sharing Christ with their students? Or do we have teachers who happen to have some connections in the Catholic district – possibly family connections – and just want a less competitive, cushier environment to find a job in? (In fact, some teachers have explicitly told news sources that they sought employment at Catholic schools because they had family connections in the district and figured it would be more “comfortable” there.)

Are solid, hardworking, and devout Catholic teachers being passed over for jobs or continuing contracts while nepotism and cliquishness are allowed to fester? Again, I cannot be sure. All I have are anecdotes. But this is the kind of uncomfortable question that needs to be coldly and frankly confronted. If separate schools are just public schools with some fuzzy spirituality and a higher percentage of Ukrainian and Italian teachers, both the public and the Church will have to ask: What do we keep them around for?

But here’s a less invasive, but hopefully not less pointed, question: What kind of formation are we giving teachers? We have a rigorous program of human, intellectual, spiritual, and pastoral formation for our priests, and thanks be to God for that. But let’s be honest here: A priest does not have that much time in the week to provide catechesis and instruction to his parishioners, let alone to young people.

Teachers, on the other hand, see their students (usually) once a day, sometimes for almost the whole day. In our day and age, the job of passing on the faith is much more firmly in the hands of Catholic school teachers than of our clergy. If this sounds startling, consider that St. John Chrysostom – who served as the Archbishop of Constantinople, one of the most important clerical positions in the Church – asked, “What greater work is there than training the mind and forming the habits of the young?” Even compared to his own ministry, this incredibly important bishop saw teaching our children as perhaps the “greatest work” of the Church, which is why that line is quoted in a 1929 encyclical on education.

And, if that’s the case, what kind of formation are we giving our teachers? What kind of intellectual and spiritual discipline are we expecting of them? It is urgent that we have both. Teachers who barely understand what the Church teaches (and do not necessarily care) are a travesty for catechesis. On the other hand, a teacher who does not understand the faith and a teacher who is knowledgeable but unloving can both be disastrous.

There was recently controversy in Toronto when Catholic school trustees forbade a passage from the Catechism on homosexuality from being read at a meeting. It is definitely a serious problem if our schools are failing to teach students what the Gospel reveals about sexuality, but it is just as bad if students, especially those struggling with the teaching, are not experiencing Christian love in their school communities.

“…if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). As Hans Urs von Balthasar said, “love alone is credible.” The only way to win people to true faith, and to persuade them of the merits of keeping Catholic schools, is the tangible, supernatural manifestation (in both words and action) of God’s saving love.

This article has gotten long, because there is much to say; frankly, much more than has been said. But here is the point, in case it has been lost in all these observations: The Theodore victory is a blessing, and we are fortunate to live in a country and a province that gives them constitutional protections, but God is not giving us laurels upon which to rest. He has mercifully saved Catholic schools; now we need to discern what He wants us to do with them. These schools have amazing potential, and we probably have not even begun to see what they are capable of doing for the Kingdom of God. But to whom much is given, much will be required (Luke 12:48).

Pope Francis has called for us to be a Church that focuses on mission rather than maintenance. Are there ways we can make our schools more faithful to their mission and less about maintaining their status quo? Almost certainly yes, but it could mean asking painful questions and making difficult changes. But, then, after all, isn’t that what Lent is for?

–Brett Fawcett is a teacher and columnist. He has degrees in theology and education and is the winner of the 2018 Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Excellence in Social Studies Education.